Last year when Big Brothers Big Sisters Riverside/San Bernardino sought UC Riverside’s support for a virtual pilot mentoring program, 34 students immediately signed up.
This unique program — and completely new way of approaching mentoring for BBBS Riverside/San Bernardino — became essential at the height of the pandemic, when many high school students were considering dropping out of school. College Bigs, the new virtual mentoring program in the Inland Empire that connects college and high school students, was adopted from a national BBBS model in October 2020.
Now, UCR and BBBS Riverside/San Bernardino are about to add 115 more mentors to College Bigs. Making the program virtual has offered mentors greater flexibility, and exclusively pairing high school and college students made sense because it narrowed the age gap. BBBS has historically hosted its community mentoring program on a one-to-one, in-person basis. Mentors from all ages and walks of life are welcome; College Bigs though, is exclusively virtual and between high school and college students.
“When the pandemic hit, we started seeing high school students talking about not knowing if they wanted to finish high school,” said Jennifer O’Farrell executive director for Big Brothers Big Sisters Riverside/San Bernardino counties. “All of a sudden these kids became tutors, lunch makers, and in many cases the main breadwinners at home. Week over week, the weight of the world is on them. So, we asked ourselves, how do we ensure they complete their secondary education and how do we connect in a virtual world? College students, of course, are native to digital media.”
O’Farrell’s team knocked on the doors of Inland Empire colleges and universities. UCR responded immediately, she said. Before classes begin this fall, College Bigs will have 115 UCR mentors paired with Ramona, North, Arlington, Norte Vista, Notre Dame, and La Sierra high schools.
Richard Cardullo, Howard H Hays, Jr. chair and director of UCR University Honors, is collaborating with O’Farrell to enlist the new mentors.
“UCR students took on the mantle of leadership not only to remain strong students, but mentors to high school students in the region,” O’Farrell said.
Monique Hernandez is one of those UCR mentors. Her mentee, or “little” as the young mentees are called, is a sophomore at Notre Dame High School. They were paired nearly nine months ago.
As a first-generation student, Hernandez was motivated to help another first-gen student who will likely have the same questions she once had, she said.
“More people should feel motivated to join BBBS; they are giving back to the community and helping others coming along,” said Hernandez, an incoming third-year sociology major, criminal justice minor. “I want to show my mentee and other kids that college isn’t as scary as it seems to be.”
Hernandez and her “little” use text messaging and Zoom to communicate. As a College Big, BBBS requires a one-year commitment and 90 minutes per month of virtual contact with the mentee.
“Every month we have monthly meetings as a BBBS group, and then individually my ‘little’ and I discuss topics such as resumes, mental health, college applications, etc.,” said Hernandez, who also volunteers for Make a Wish Foundation and is a member of the UCR Law Club. “My mentee is great; she is very academic and future focused. So, I’m just there to lend a little bit of support to help her pick a club or when she struggles in a class.”
Katelyn Nguyen, an incoming second year student, is another mentor paired with a “little” from Notre Dame High School.
Their communication is primarily via text messaging and FaceTime. Conversations tend to focus on time management and how to best balance extracurriculars and academics.
“Honestly, because we are virtual, this is even better,” said Nguyen, a business administration major who also volunteered with BBBS while in high school. She mentored elementary school students, completing nearly 200 mentorship hours during those four years. “Being virtual makes it so flexible because my little is in so many extracurriculars and I work, so virtual mentoring is perfect.”
Nguyen said despite not having met in person, they are building a strong bond over the phone.
“I try to give her as much advice as I can; we talk about making friends, music… it’s been a process. I’m extraverted and my little is more shy,” said Nguyen, who has already joined the A Friend in Me and Friends of Dialysis service clubs at UCR. “I’m looking forward to showing her around UCR during one of our FaceTimes.”