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Penn FLASH is an online platform through which FGLI students can connect with alumni mentors for advice or collaborate on mini-projects. (Logo from mentoring.upenn.edu)

Credit: Kylie Cooper

An alumni mentorship program for first-generation, low-income Penn students has helped connect hundreds of students with alumni to share career advice and resources.

Penn FLASH is an online platform through which FGLI students can connect with alumni mentors based on factors including their major, career prospects, and location. Through the website, students can reach out to alumni to ask for advice or collaborate on mini-projects. Launched as a pilot program in spring 2019 by the Greenfield Intercultural Center, Vice Provost for University Life, and the Office of Penn First Plus Alumni, the program has grown from about 25 students and 45 alumni at its inception to 384 students and 448 alumni participants, FGLI Program Director Toyce Holmes said.

Many alumni mentors were recruited through Penn Alumni Relations and Career Services. While many alumni mentors identify as FGLI, non-FGLI alumni have also joined the platform to support students, GIC Director Valerie De Cruz said. Alumni who want to volunteer their time and resources can sign up on the website and must be approved by a staffer at the GIC before interacting with students. 

Penn FLASH was first proposed by FGLI students at summits held by Penn First who felt they lacked mentorship opportunities, De Cruz said.

“FGLI students identified the need to have mentors that they can reach out to who [are] supportive of their journey — who understand some of the unique challenges that a FGLI student might have,” De Cruz said.

1991 College and Wharton graduate Cindy Rentala was one of the first alumni to be involved in the Penn FLASH project as a partner, De Cruz said. An immigrant who “chased the American Dream,” Rentala said that FGLI resources at Penn were almost nonexistent when she was a student .

“When I was at Penn, FGLI was not even a term that anyone talked about,” she said. “I felt the imposter syndrome, as well as not understanding the cultural norms — not knowing the resources to seek out and [how to] ask for help.”

After graduating from Penn, Rentala spent several years in financial services and accounting before returning to Penn for her MBA. She now primarily works in financial technology that develops systems for payment over the internet, such as how Uber and Lyft pay their drivers. 

As a mentor, Rentala said she hopes to be the resource for students that she did not have when she was at Penn. She said students usually reach out to her because of a post she made or to ask about her experience in financial technology. Most of the mentoring consists of hosting video conferences to have one-on-one conversations, where she gets to know the student and their specific circumstances, Rentala said.

Alumni are also able to post internship and job opportunities for FGLI students on the platform, and through the Penn FLASH Projects feature, students and alumni can collaborate on specific mini-projects that help students get professional experience, such as coordinating a marketing campaign or coding a website.

The GIC wanted to create a comfortable and personal nature of connecting with alumni on the platform, De Cruz said, adding that she wanted to help students avoid "the LinkedIn experience, where you’re tailoring your email and reaching out to 10 people and only two are responding."

Some students felt that the tools on the platform, such as a customizable template message, helped them feel more comfortable reaching out to alumni. College sophomore Jaydin Clark said that the introductory modules, which give students a personalized template to send to alumni, was helpful to him in reaching out to 2010 College graduate Julia Shen for advice about financial consulting this semester. 

“I just sent her a cold message on Penn FLASH. I used the template pretty much, and then kind of personalized it,” he said. “I said that I noticed that she had consulting and data science in her background, and I thought it would be cool if we connected.”

Because of their shared interest in data science and consulting, Clark reached out to Shen to schedule a video conference. Though it was only supposed to be 30 minutes, Clark said that they ended up speaking for over an hour and a half. Shen connected Clark to summer internships and data science resources, and they remain in touch through emails and LinkedIn, Clark said.

Clark said that, while he was aware of other networking platforms, he had used Penn FLASH the most thus far and said that it was useful and accessible. He added that Penn FLASH’s features make it easier to find people with similar interests than other networking websites.

“I know that on LinkedIn, you just kind of have to search people and, after a while, it kind of gets hard to find people who might be interested in talking to you,” he said. “I really appreciated the fact that [Penn FLASH] made it so that you’re not necessarily trying to sell yourself as much. It’s more about trying to learn about the mentor."

Shen joined Penn FLASH because she understood what it was like to not have access to connections coming from an immigrant background.

“That kind of informal knowledge is so important to creating accessibility, and also creating inclusion,” she said. “I think it’s also really, really important to build that bridge starting from undergrad.”

She said that her background in consulting made apparent the importance of networking and connections, leading her to volunteer her resources and time to help students on Penn FLASH.

“Cultural capital is not something that is currently democratically shared,” Shen said. “You can’t access it unless people voluntarily give it up, and so I feel a really strong obligation to do that.”

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