Helping other students — and gaining valuable experience

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In 2019, two community college alumni at the University of California, Berkeley created College Leap to help community college students transfer. Now, with 20 chapters and multiple activities in the works, the co-founders aim to take peer advisement to new levels to improve students’ transfer experiences.

They’ve also structured leadership roles in the organization to raise the competitiveness quotient of active members’ applications to selective baccalaureate programs.

Since starting College Leap as an “ecosystem” to assist international students at community colleges, the co-founders have shifted the mission to help all community college students through the transfer process and transition to university life. With a crew of 10 active chapter leaders and 1,600 registered users of its website, they plan to expand to 50 two-year colleges in the next three years.   

The student-run organization is structured to develop community college students’ leadership skills — and thus enhance their resumes for selective university programs — by having them organize national academic competitions, convene panel discussions with successful transfer students, and arrange internships at start-up companies. Each chapter also offers transfer-related activities at their community college campuses.

Co-founder Zijie “Jay” Zhao, 26, considers the leadership opportunities and training that College Leap provides to chapter leaders as the high-value experience that differentiates College Leap from other student clubs.

The three leaders of community college chapters in California, Washington and New York, who were interviewed for this article, report that College Leap has improved their leadership and communication skills by connecting them via video conferences, email and social media with other community college students.

Appealing to big-name companies

Handy Pranata, president of the College Leap chapter at De Anza College (California), noted that increased fluency with virtual delivery of academic programs because of Covid helped him recruit 11 human resource managers, recruiters and interns from large companies to serve as panelists for a four-part Career and Internship Preparation Seminar. He was also tenacious. He emailed 80 people who he found through LinkedIn to ask them to participate in what began as a chapter project. When Pranata lined up speakers from Google, Amazon, Tesla, Paypal, AT&T, HP, Wish and OpenWave Computing, College Leap promoted the seminars on its website.

“If we actually had face-to-face seminars, we’re limited to probably Cupertino or California, in general. Having it virtual allows us to bring in people from all across the country. We have attendees coming from all around the world. We have attendees from India. We have attendees from China. We really are able to bring everyone together with this virtual environment,” he said in an interview from his home in Indonesia.

Pranata, who is 17, said he just arrived in the U.S. last spring when the college moved all courses online and waived the requirement for international students to take at least 12 units on campus. He returned to Indonesia after two weeks, which means he does College Leap tasks before or after attending synchronous class sessions during the wee hours of the morning. Other members of DeAnza’s leadership team join College Leap video work sessions from China, Taiwan, Malaysia and the U.S.

Developing more events  

“I have never seen a club come together so effectively and so quickly,” said Melody Schneider, faculty advisor for the College Leap chapter at Edmonds College (Washington) since September.

She cited the MAJORNATOR live, virtual workshop that the Edmonds chapter offered in November via Zoom to illustrate her point. It featured three Edmonds alumni who shared information about their careers, the courses they took at the college and transfer tips.

“The MAJORNATOR event was a huge success and it was entirely due to the club leadership. The students were prepared and sought advice as they needed it, but every time they reached out to me, they had completed so much of the work so thoughtfully. All I did was offer small tweaks. They had a large audience, especially for a first-time event and their preparation and thoughtfulness made it a huge success,” Schneider said.

Phuo “Jasmine” Ngo Ngoc Bui, the Edmonds College chapter president, said in response to feedback from the 30 people who attended the MAJORNATOR that the club’s eight-member core team will offer a resume-building webinar this winter, and in March it will offer a business-focused MAJORNATOR workshop.

Bui, 17, said organizing College Leap activities have “curved my mindset.” She completed coursework for her high school diploma in Vietnam through Edmonds’ International High School Completion program and hopes to finish an associate degree in science in fall 2021. 

Since becoming chapter president last spring — at a time when Covid-related restrictions made her feel isolated doing academic work in the bedroom of a relative’s home — she has served as the Washington regional manager for College Leap’s National Business Plan Competition that concluded in November. She is involved in planning the Creative Research Challenge (CRC), one of the programs College Leap is launching this year.

The challenge aims to attract the attention of humanities majors with its request for Covid-related research proposals. Teams of up to five students will submit a three-minute video and 300-word summary of their research ideas by March 15. Selected teams will receive advice on how to pursue their ideas. Finalists will present their work at the College Leap Community Research Forum on May 7.

“Joining College Leap has given me the opportunity to talk to other people, even though I may never meet them [in person]. We do talk online. They are from community colleges in California, and they have this positive mindset that I don’t have. And we encourage each other and help each other to get the work done,” she said.

So far, the results for Bui include gaining “a little bit from their confidence.”   

Using past experiences

Bui reports that Zhao’s motivational talks and the strategic breakdown of College Leap tasks keep the far-flung chapter leaders going when Covid has stalled many extracurricular activities.    

College Leap is the brainchild of Zhao, who said it is informed by his experience running his own start-up companies in the U.S. and China and his experience transferring from Foothill College to UC-Berkeley. One “pivot” attempted by his second company — Rocross — involved marketing U.S. community colleges to students in China. Though not a successful long-term business, Zhao said it provided him with “a very deep and comprehensive understanding of the community college transfer system.”

He also expressed gratitude to Cleve Freeman, director of the Transfer Center at Foothill, who helped him plan the courses he took at Foothill and select the four-year colleges where he applied.

An opportunity to help

At UC-Berkeley in 2019, Zhao met Biao “Bill” Wang, a community college transfer student. Zhao said he and Wang, 22, realized that international students face “a very special set of challenges not shared by the students at the four-year universities or by the local students at community colleges.” Without the local students’ familial and community connections, international students lack the personal networks that often lead to internships.

“So we initially started to empower the international students at community colleges by providing them with the internships, volunteer [opportunities] and the activities in other fields to help them improve their transfer resume,” Zhao said. 

Wang and Zhao are both natives of China who enrolled in community colleges in the San Francisco Bay area to tap into the resources and opportunities of Silicon Valley to aid their long-term goals of enrolling in selective baccalaureate and graduate programs. Zhao describes himself as a non-traditional student because he attended the University of Rochester for two years (2013-2015) right out of high school, and then returned to China to work on his start-up company for three years before enrolling at Foothill in 2018. He hopes to earn an MBA after he graduates from UC-Berkeley this spring.

Wang, who majored in interdisciplinary studies, graduated from UC-Berkeley in December. He is now working full time on College Leap while preparing for graduate school. He hopes to enroll in a master’s degree program that combines his interests in education, technology and entrepreneurial enterprises.

“In terms of career goals, College Leap provides me a good opportunity for practicing leadership and entrepreneur skills in the educational field. Since we generate our values through our online platform, it is also a great chance for me to gain hands-on experience in delivering educational resources virtually,” he said.

During 2019-2020, College Leap had 10 chapters. Seven were at San Francisco Bay area colleges. Now it has 20 chapters; most are at community colleges on the West Coast.

Its expansion plan includes marketing the Creative Research Challenge at community colleges in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts in addition to Washington and California.

As they did with the National Business Plan Competition, College Leap leaders have assembled an impressive group of judges to evaluate the submissions and provide feedback.

Further plans

The quick pace of the group’s evolution is evident in its recent rebranding as a “National Community for Ambitious Community College Students.”

Zhao and Wang said the shift away from the organization’s original mission of offering an ecosystem for international students to a “premier club for transfer students” reflects the reach College Leap already has and responds to the needs of the broader community college student population. They noted that half of the National Business Plan Competition participants — the 80 teams had an average of three students per team — were “local” students born in the U.S.

“As we go further, we realized it’s not just international students who needed it,” Wang said.

There is a universality to the tips that community college alumni have shared during the weekly Transfer Student Panel Series, which is free and open to the public. The first eight installments of the Q&A seminars have featured community college transfer students attending Ivy League universities, Stanford University, California Institute of Technology, University of Virginia, University of Michigan, and various University of California campuses. 

To address other transfer student needs, College Leap is developing:

  • Intern At Startups — a program that matches community college students with unpaid internships at start-up companies.
  • Summer Camps for STEM  students — multi-day camps to teach coding and other skills to students between their first and second years at community colleges.
  • Community Service Awards — recognition of College Leap members’ volunteer efforts on their college campuses or with community non-profits.

Finding inspiration

Last spring, as Bagul Mammedova, a 19-year-old from Turkmenistan, was finishing her freshman year at community college in New York, she knew she had to do more than study alone in her apartment to reach her goal of transferring to a selective international studies program. When EducationUSA, a U.S. State Department program, circulated information about College Leap, she applied to be the new chapter’s president. Zhao and Wang interview applicants for chapter leadership roles and have a formal onboarding process.

By mid-summer, the “motivation, hard work and knowledge” of other chapter leaders led Mammedova to serve as a regional operations manager for the National Business Plan Competition, even though she knew nothing about business and had zero experience organizing events.

“They were all from California state and Washington state. They really seemed competitive. They knew what to do and how to do [it],” Mammedova said of the College Leap meetings.

Rather than being dejected, Mammedova said she was motivated by this realization: “Your peers that have more experience — it makes them stand out and the same time you lag behind.”

Deciding she had to do more, and then seeing the entire teamwork through the difficulties of running their first big national event has helped her confidence grow. When she had trouble recently recruiting at her college for the chapter’s transfer panel, she said Zhoa’s example of not giving up when it was hard to get responses from potential partners and schools for the business plan competition helped her persist.

“No matter how challenging it was, his efforts were unbeatable,” she said.

She has not only recruited three alumni to speak at the virtual panel next week, she was inspired to think about establishing a non-profit in the future — after graduate school and a career in international development.

“I am prepared to run it successfully in the face of challenges as I am learning hands-on,” she said.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.