Big Ideas Mentors Carry Student Projects Forward

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

By: Abby Madan, 2nd Year Political Economy Major

The end of this year’s BigIdeas@Berkeley contest has arrived, and the 56 finalist teams’ wait for the judges’ results has finally ended.

Since the start of the yearlong contest, many students transformed their ideas into promising initiatives through hard work. The Big Ideas contest is designed to drive student innovation by providing resources that help students nurture their ideas. An integral part of this supportive ecosystem is the mentorship component of the contest.

In January, Big Ideas finalists were matched with Bay Area professionals who hold years of experience and insight in a particular field. With a shared passion for improving society and promoting positive change, mentors and student teams bring together new and creative innovation with the skills and guidance that comes from experience. A good mentor is a confidante, a guiding voice, and someone who asks the difficult questions, students expressed.

“Our mentor was a perfect match… it really helped us focus and fill in all the gaps that were missing in our project,” shared Krishna Bommakanti, a 4th year Molecular and Cell Biology student and member of Wellness Water, a team designing a wetland system to purify contaminated water in rural South India. “We wanted a mentor who could help us not only bring out the innovative merit but who could also work with us on the technical aspects of wetland construction – that’s where we have a weakness.”

At Big Ideas, mentoring is a reciprocal relationship that often allows the mentor to learn from the team and feel a sense of pride from watching them grow. Wellness Water’s mentor, Dr. Syed Imran Ali, is a water and sanitation specialist with Médecins Sans Frontières and feels personally invested in his team’s project. With five years of experience as an environmental engineering researcher on safe water and public health in South India under his belt, Dr. Ali could advise the students of obstacles to anticipate, including cultural barriers.

“Because this project is in the stream of my PhD work, it almost felt like a vindication of everything that I’d learned,” confessed Dr. Ali. “I had made so many mistakes in my own PhD work, it was fulfilling, in a way, to advise these guys not to make those mistakes and fall into the same traps.”
Mentors are also an invaluable resource when it comes to networking and long term support. Mentor Kate Hamilton, communications director of Disability Rights Advocates, brought ten years of fundraising, outreach, community building and activism experience to her team, Heart Connection. Heart Connection is centered around a multimedia website representing the first generation of adults surviving complex congenital heart disease, creating a visual archive of the lived experiences of CHD survivors through artistic expression.

“From the first time we met her, Kate has been so encouraging. She listened to our stories and connected with us before helping us with our visions,” shared Kaitlin Kimmel, a member of Heart Connection and UC Berkeley senior in Interdisciplinary Studies. Hamilton and the members of Heart Connection share a passion for disability advocacy and plan to maintain their relationship even after the end of the contest.

“We’re supposed to be having a celebration dinner soon,” Kimmel laughed.

Big Ideas mentors help students with skill building, networking, and lasting relationships, all while getting to be a part of the next generation’s most creative social impact ideas. To learn more about the mentorship program and how you can get involved, visit