Engineering News

How Two Computer Science Students Built an All-Student Mentorship Program

By creating an algorithm, undergrads match student mentors with mentees

Alayna Richmond, left, and Caryl Henry built a mentorship program that matched pairs based on interests and goals.Alayna Richmond, left, and Caryl Henry built a mentorship program that matched pairs based on interests and goals.

Finding an internship or job can be tough. Having the right mentor to show the way can make all the difference.

That’s what inspired Northwestern Engineering Computer Science students Caryl Henry (’21) and Alayna Richmond (’21) to use their skills to develop an algorithm matching younger computer science students with older ones who have successfully navigated a CS major as well as the recruitment process for choice internships and jobs in spring.

This entirely student run mentorship program worked so well that the duo has now created a new “buddy” program, aimed at helping first-year and transfer students interested in a CS major or minor wade their way through class choices — and already over 140 students have signed up. A survey of potential mentors included questions about interests and experience.

“We want to help people navigate undergraduate CS at Northwestern and find community during this remote quarter,” said Henry, from Winnetka, Illinois, who is also the internal president of the Women in Computing (WiC) at the McCormick School of Engineering. “The past six months have taught us that establishing new relationships online is really difficult, and this is our attempt at helping.”

Both Henry and Richmond knew firsthand the benefits of mentor-mentee relationships through their internships at Microsoft and Google, and Strava and Flexport, respectively.

“Last fall, I went through the recruitment process for internships for the first time and didn’t know many people who had done it before,” said Richmond, from Saratoga, California. “It was very stressful, in particular because I had very little idea what the process would look like and because I hadn’t practiced talking to people at career fairs or doing interviews. A mentorship program could help fill some of the gaps and give people more resources and guidance.”

The duo wanted other students to have those connections, and the move to online courses made it more urgent.

“We wanted to create meaningful relationships, or at least meaningful conversations, between mentors and mentees to ensure that underclassmen were getting the support they need,” Henry said.

Mentees were found via email newsletters and word of mouth, and Henry and Richmond asked their friends and fellow members of WiC to sign up as volunteer mentors, even though this mentorship program is independent of any club. Forty-five mentors signed up.

The pair realized students need help exploring different career paths as well as understanding and preparing for the recruitment process.

They created a survey for mentees and mentors to get a sense of their skills, expertise, interests, and goals. Topics included:

  • Career and academic goals
  • Needs for support
  • Experience of mentors

Next, their algorithm split students into groups of mentors and mentees, looking for optimal matches. A value was assigned to every possible mentee-mentor pair based on their survey responses. Ultimately, 82 first- and second-year student mentees paired with the 45 upper-level mentors in April, thanks to the algorithm Richmond learned in winter 2019 in COMP_SCI 336: Design & Analysis of Algorithms.

“The weight for a pair was larger, and thus better, when the mentee’s career interests overlapped with the mentor’s career experience,” Richmond said.

Networking sessions

Starting in May, the mentor/mentee pairs set up virtual meetings. They discussed a range of topics, including career paths and setting career goals, preparing for internship recruitment, course planning, resume building, understanding the internship application and interview process, getting involved in research or personal projects, growing major- or job-specific skills, or other matters that came up that were unique to each mentor-mentee relationship.

In the middle of June, Richmond and Henry sent out a survey of mentees, and learned 80 percent had a better idea of their career path. A vast majority figured out course paths and said they felt more prepared for internship and job recruitment.

After the success of the initial program, this fall the team started placing first-year CS students in groups of three with an upperclassman CS major as a mentor. Unlike the career-centered program, this one has the goal of helping first-year and transfer students who intend to declare or have already declared a CS major or minor find their way through the school.

“Students don’t only have a great vision for change,” Henry said, “but they’re willing to put in the work to see that change happen.”