By Andrea Guzman
In 2012, fourth year Cal undergrad Vrinda Agarwal landed an internship at Senator Barbara Boxer’s office in Oakland, fielding calls from constituents. She knew that people rarely called to commend state employees on state policies, but she was shocked by the number of people whose complaints stemmed from problems of poverty and inequality.
“It didn’t make sense to me that I was answering so many calls from people requesting additional welfare services, wondering when their names would be pulled off affordable housing lists, and struggling to fund their children’s college education,” said Agarwal, who is studying political science, public policy, and legal studies.
Frustrated yet motivated, Agarwal called on four fellow female students—Julie Brown, Madeeha Ghori, Smriti Joneja, and Ruhi Nath—whom she describes as “incredible leaders, role models, and feminists.” In November 2012, at Berkeley’s Caffe Strada, the five decided to start a summer leadership camp for low-income female students and call it 100 Strong.
But as the team started to map out a plan through their participation in the student innovation contest BigIdeas@Berkeley, it changed its model. Agarwal describes attending an after-school program for low-income students and noticing that the group was about 20 percent female and 80 percent male. She felt compelled to work solely with girls—who she knew needed more support to graduate from high school and go on to college—and to provide them leadership training throughout the academic year.
“Whether applying for a job or for college, there is always some question about leadership experience,” said Nath, a 4th year student majoring in Public Health. “Leadership has become a transferrable skill and we wanted to provide that resource.”
In May 2013, 100 Strong won third place in the Big Ideas competition in the global poverty alleviation category, earning it $5,000 in startup funds. Its mission is to have 100 female middle and high school students from the Bay Area participate in a yearlong leadership training and mentorship program with female UC Berkeley students.
Throughout the academic year, female UC Berkeley students mentor girls through weekly workshops and sessions. The mentors help guide the students to create their own social impact projects that will create a positive change in their high schools or local community. Mentee projects can include a composting program, blood drives, or teaming up with a nonprofit to host a fashion show.
“We encourage girls to start diverse programs that benefit their communities, whether it is a coding academy for other low-income women or a community garden,” said Agarwal.
In addition to the weekly program, 100 Strong also holds weekend intensives for its mentees. The high school students spend the four days in residential housing and attend workshops, leadership and team building activities, tours of the campus, and guest speaker events to get them excited by their post-graduate possibilities.
During the 2014 fall semester, 100 Strong board members held a student-led DeCal course, to train mentors on topics such as structural poverty, gender discrimination, and public speaking skills. The students’ final project is to develop a workshop to present to the mentees in the spring of 2015.
Increasingly, 100 Strong finds validation for its model from external studies. The 2013 report “The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles,” for example, found that mentorship programs can lead to gains in social acceptance and academic attitudes and grades.
Yet like any new organization, 100 Strong had to overcome unexpected challenges. One of the biggest was the difficulty of finding students to mentor. While some schools expressed interest and support for 100 Strong, many were unable to dedicate the time necessary to introduce the program into their schools.
“Through the process, we realized how busy administrators and teachers are,” said Nath. “While they expressed interest, they just didn’t have the capacity to follow up.”
Despite such obstacles, in its 2012-2013 pilot year, 100 Strong trained 23 mentors and about 20 mentees. This academic year, the mentors are serving all 50 8th grade female students at REALM Charter Middle School in Berkeley. To continue its growth, 100 Strong is working on measuring and analyzing the impact of its program.
“We have to remember that the program must ultimately benefit the mentors and mentees,” said Chief Financial Officer Michelle Nie, a second year student intending to major in Business Administration. “By making sure we’re creating a positive impact, we can improve our program even more effectively.”
100 Strong is participating in a crowdfunding campaign with Indiegogo to raise $5,000. The money would help the organization reach its goal of mentoring 100 students per year, fund mentee community service projects, and alleviate some of the time the100 Strong team spends on raising money for its programs.
The co-founders must also face that they are all graduating in 2015 and will likely leave the Bay Area. Sustainability has thus become a focus of 100 Strong; the founding team is in the process of getting 501(c)3 nonprofit status and cultivating 100 Strong’s new leadership among its younger mentors. Ultimately, 100 Strong’s founders hope to create a model that can be incorporated into campuses nationwide.
“There are so many low-income communities across the country in which women do not have the same opportunities as their male cohorts, have lower graduation rates, and ultimately becoming underrepresented in higher education,” said Agarwal. “I want women across the country to have the opportunities that 100 Strong provides: mentorship, the chance the practice their leadership skills, and the ability to start a community project of their own.”