It started with a group of Los Angeles high school students who wanted to use their talents to bridge the gap in educational inequalities among low-income and recently immigrated families.
The Leaders United for Change, a completely high school student-led organization, started tutoring Los Angeles’ underprivileged students in March 2019—but they wanted it to be more than a tutoring program, but rather a mentorship where they could foster and grow meaningful relationships with the common goal of sharing knowledge in both academic and extracurricular areas.
“We just want to be someone who can be like an older brother or sister figure who can listen to them, who can give them advice, who they can trust no matter what happens,” said Lyon Ui Chung, president of Leaders United for Change and a rising junior at Harvard Westlake School.
They used to mentor students at The Oriental Mission Church—then COVID-19 became a reality. Schools across the globe shut down and people were encouraged to stay home, preventing the mentorship program from meeting in person and creating new unprecedented academic challenges for students to overcome.
The Leaders United for Change overcame the social distancing barrier, creating an online platform and mentoring students through Zoom. Despite the pandemic’s struggles, the program grew from 60 Los Angeles students and mentors to over 300 students across the country and globe.
“That continued interest from not only our students and mentors we already had but these different friends from all over the globe that also wanted to contribute to something and develop a way to continue serving during quarantine was what drove us to expand and also develop this digital platform,” said Andrew Choe, a leader of the mentorship program.
The program offers academic assistance to students from third to 10th grade in any subject they need help with, also offering classes in master skills the mentors possess, like journalism, robotics and machine making as well as competition math and English.
The best thing about the system is that it’s a healthy, communal cycle, where those who were once mentees eventually can become mentors, too, Chung said.
The organization provides more to students than just “robotically inputting information into their heads,” Chung said. It’s about having real conversations and creating long-lasting, meaningful friendships while helping them on their educational journey.
From 6 to 7 p.m. Saturdays, the mentors and students join a Zoom call and jump right into learning and reviewing educational material. The leaders of the program pair mentors with students and go through a review process, speaking with the student and taking notes on how their personalities mesh and whether it was a suitable pairing.
“The happiest time for me is at 7 o’clock I start getting these text messages and emails about how great the session was,” Chung said.
The Leaders United for Change have worked hard to expand their educational enrichment opportunities to students from over 15 states and as well as Colombia, China and South Korea.
The mentorship program has teamed with other organizations and schools to offer academic support with the goal of extending outreach to as many students as possible.
Around March, the Leaders United for Change teamed with Baby Box, a South Korea-based organization that rescues babies abandoned by single mothers as well as helping North Korean refugees adapt to life in South Korea.
Through this mentorship, the Leaders United for Change teach English to students on the other side of the world and also offer their friendship and emotional support during the isolating time of social distancing. The program has 20 bilingual mentors in both English and Korean who teach the Baby Box students each week.
While learning a language together can be frustrating and difficult at times, “Sharing in that learning process is something our international mentors and students have been able to enjoy together,” Choe said.
For students in China as well as South Korea, the skill of speaking English is widely valued and will help them secure professional jobs, which in turn will help to break the cycle of poverty, Chung said. For children growing under the care of recently immigrated parents, the skill of knowing English in the United States is also vital to succeed, he said.
“I think teaching the (English) language is very important, especially if you grow up to be an American in this current state,” Chung said.
As a child of a recent immigrant, Chung said he empathizes with the struggles that students face trying to master their English-speaking skills. “I wanted to help people like me,” he said.
The Leaders United for Change also reached out to LA-based organization Korean American Family Services in April and they have plans to mentor students from their Asian Foster Family Initiative program, they said.
The mentorships outreach recently connected with Today’s Fresh Start Charter in Compton, where they hope they can soon build friendships and offer educational assistance to their eighth graders.
“Through this organization, I’ve gone to learn so many different things about me as a person, about how to interact with other people, and I’ve been able to meet so many incredible mentors and mentees through this,” Chung said. “That was the most important gift this organization has been to me.”
The leaders said they hope to continue the mentorship program for as long as possible, to offer kindness and educational support to all the students who need it.
“We want to create a society where no student fails in their educational journey because they lack resources,” Chung said.