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Berkeley Connect encourages undergrads: “You belong here!”

By David Peterkofsky

Extensive research has shown that college students thrive, and their academic performance improves, when they have a strong sense of belonging. That’s why UC Berkeley has proactively worked to increase students’ sense of belonging through its innovative Berkeley Connect mentoring program.

Founded in 2010, Berkeley Connect matches undergraduates with graduate-student mentors and places them in small groups with other students who share their interests — providing them with personalized attention and a community of like-minded peers. In 2014 Berkeley Connect became an official campus program, and today it partners with 15 academic departments and is open to all majors, serving up to 1,200 students each semester.

The goal is simple: to help undergraduates fulfill their potential at Berkeley, in large part by making the large campus feel a bit more intimate. To do that, Berkeley Connect mentors nurture their undergrad mentees by advising them on academics, offering guidance on future career goals, and coaching them to build productive relationships with their professors.

Additionally, informal small-group discussions — facilitated by mentors and related to participants’ fields of study — build valuable relationships outside of the classroom. Visits to the Berkeley Art Museum, the Bancroft Library, and other campus sites expose students to the wealth of resources available to them, and special events are designed to help students network with faculty and alumni.

That kind of personalized attention provided through Berkeley Connect goes a long way toward building the confidence that many students need to thrive at a big place like Berkeley.

“In Berkeley Connect, I can practice coming out of my shell and speaking out in a group, because it feels like a safe space,” says Julie Marco, a third-year transfer student from Pittsburg, Calif., who is majoring in molecular environmental biology. “And when I talk with my mentor, I get insights about managing coursework or finding campus resources that I never would have found on my own.”

Marco recently sought out an opportunity to do undergraduate research on campus, and her mentor was eager to help her sort out her options. “Whenever I had questions or needed advice about navigating research experience, I went to him,” she says. “His encouragement and guidance kept me determined as I emailed researchers on campus. I now credit him as one of the people who helped me join a lab that I’ll start working in this semester.”

Student feedback about Berkeley Connect reflects Marco’s experience — as well as the program’s lasting impact. More than 90 percent of participating students have reported that Berkeley Connect increases their sense of belonging and belief that they can succeed. This feedback underscores Berkeley Connect’s overarching motto: “You belong here!”
That feeling of belonging even extends to those who facilitate the popular program.

“When I became a professor at Berkeley in 2012, I had to figure out how I fit into this complex ecosystem, navigate new academic norms, and learn to express vulnerability even in a professional setting,” recalls Bree Rosenblum, the program’s director and a professor of environmental science, policy, and management. “The Berkeley Connect message of belonging and authentic connection was a relief. Here was someplace where I could be myself — and where I could support others on their own journey.”

Supporting a vital campus program

Berkeley Connect was launched more than a decade ago thanks to the generous funding and vision of alumnus Peter Chernin ’73; today it is sustained by gifts to the Cal Parents Fund. Donors can also give directly to Berkeley Connect. To learn more about available giving opportunities, please contact the Student Experience & Diversity team at studentexperience@berkeley.edu.

With the support of Cal parents, alums, and friends, Berkeley Connect aspires to keep growing so that every undergraduate will have access to opportunities for personalized mentoring, academic community-building, and the strong sense of belonging that will unleash their full potential.

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Who does Berkeley Connect serve?

  • Berkeley Connect is particularly popular with new students; 28% of participants are first-years/freshmen, and 40-50% are juniors (mostly new junior transfers).
  • Since its inception, more than 16,000 undergraduates and 300 graduate students have benefitted from the program.
  • 28% of participants are African American, Native American, Latinx, and other historically underrepresented minorities.
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