Akshay Dinakar, a Stanford University sophomore, recently attended a birthday party for a cousin in San Jose. The attendees -- most of whom were Indian (he's Indian himself) -- came with their middle or high school aged children. At the urging of their parents, Dinakar recalled the teens approached him to ask "How did you get into Stanford?" and, even, "What are your test scores?"
Then, some time later, he was taking Caltrain back from San Francisco to Palo Alto with a friend who graduated from Gunn High School. Their train struck someone outside of Palo Alto.
These two moments, combined with Dinakar's challenging personal experience as the only Indian student at a large Kansas high school, made him think about what he could do to make a difference for current high schoolers who might feel different or despondent, or simply need another source of support in their lives.
"One thing I always wish I had had in high school was ... some kind of older Asian sibling that could have guided me or been like, 'Don't give up,'" he said.
So Dinakar started Covalence, a budding nonprofit that pairs Asian college-student mentors across the country with Asian high school mentees. He hopes Covalence will help proliferate two messages he wishes he had received in high school -- one about being different and the other about academic pressure.
"One, to help me realize that it's OK to be a different skin color and it's OK to have a different culture and different values," he said, "and (two), killing myself over what grades I get and trying to get to this golden Ivy League or Stanford is not all there is to life, especially in high school."
Dinakar, an ardent college sophomore majoring in product design (he's pondering psychology and computer science minors), hopes to eventually be the CEO of his own nonprofit social-good design firm. He's passionate about inventing things, positive psychology and social leadership.
For the last several months, he's been building Covalence, recruiting mentors from his own social networks at colleges and universities throughout the United States. There are now 40 mentors from 11 different schools, from Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley to Harvard University, The Juilliard School and Middlebury School, among others. Dinakar is hoping to continue to recruit mentors to have as diverse a list as possible.
Named for covalent bonds, the sharing of electron pairs between atoms, Covalence isn't trying to be a college-prep program nor a psychological-support service. The mentors are given minimal guidelines: Reach out to your mentee via email twice a month if you don't hear from them. Listen to them and answer any questions they may have. Build a relationship.
"All the mentors I've chosen are very stable Asian kids in college who have come to terms with the fact that they're different and that's what they love most about themselves," Dinakar said. "I think they also have the perspective that ... (a) cutthroat academic atmosphere is not the way to success. Those are the two cornerstones (of Covalence)."
There are no requirements or restrictions for interested high schoolers, though it's geared toward juniors and seniors of Asian heritage.
Six students have signed up already from the Bay Area, New York City, Kansas City and Chicago, and the nonprofit is seeking more applications. Dinakar hopes to pair each of the 40 mentors with one mentee.
One of the Stanford mentors, Aprotim Bhowmik, described how, as an Indian-American growing up in a small suburb of Georgia, he struggled with his identity.
"One of the primary struggles that I faced -- and that many of my Asian-American friends faced -- dealt with social identity and assimilation," he said. "Asian-Americans, largely being the children of immigrants, often have difficulty coming to terms with their identity with respect to gender identity/expression, social identity and mental well-being. These topics are too often ignored or considered taboo in many Asian-American households, and it would be great to provide some guidance to high school students who are struggling with these issues."
He did not have an older mentor in high school and wishes he had. Now, as a mentor, he hopes to help Asian high schoolers develop "as entire people, not just students."
Another Stanford sophomore, Valerie Ding, said it was the impact of older mentors on her high school self that compelled her to pay it forward with Covalence.
"When I was a junior and senior in high school I changed a lot as person, as a human being. I developed pretty drastically emotionally and in terms of what I was interested in and how I viewed the world, how I viewed what I wanted to do with my life," she said in an interview. "Since I was so changed by mentors in my life at the time -- it was great that there was a formal way for me to return that."
For her, it was a science teacher who served as her research adviser and several older students who were in college when she was in high school. Research on youth mental health and suicide prevention often refers to the importance of teenagers having at least one "trusted adult" in their lives.
"The point of it," Ding said, "is you get to know them and you get to understand them."
Dinakar also hopes the mentors will form their own community. Each mentor is asked to periodically check in on and provide support to three other mentors. They can also connect and ask each other questions via a Facebook group and email list, including contacting individual mentors who have specific experience or background in a topic, Dinakar said.
For Dinakar, Covalence's purpose has taken on even more importance in the wake of the presidential election, with many minorities, immigrants and communities of color feeling fearful and uncertain about their future under the new administration.
"There's been a lot of activism on this campus and a lot of the minorities really uniting together to be like, 'Don't forget about us; we matter, especially now more than ever,'" Dinakar said. "I think this is honestly a very perfect time to launch a project like this."