Where there are gaps in academic and career achievement for underprivileged kids in the Bay Area, alumna Jacqueline Diep works to build bridges.
Diep, a 2018 graduate, spearheaded the program The Big Homie Project, in spring 2019 to provide opportunity for a demographic that often falls through the cracks. The program aims to connect rising high school juniors and seniors in the Boys & Girls Clubs of America with a “big homie” mentor and help marginalized students enter career fields where they are often underrepresented.
Working at tech giants such as Facebook and Google, Diep said she would often get caught up in the day-to-day grind that defines the startup capital but wanted to extend herself further than just her job and give back to her community. Looking toward her immediate surrounding area, Diep centered The Big Homie Project on a demographic she felt needed the most attention — youth in East Palo Alto, a predominantly Black and Latinx city in the Bay Area that is often stigmatized as dangerous.
“My goal is that every kid figures out a way out of a community like East Palo Alto,” Diep said. “Facebook is a few blocks away and you have all these companies that are a few blocks away and yet you have this community over there that’s struggling.”
Diep’s desire to help underprivileged youth is inspired by her own story: After growing up in foster care and struggling with homelessness, she credits the mentors throughout her life for achieving her goals. Diep said she believes healthy mentorship is the biggest contributor to a student’s success and drive.
“I realized that I would not be where I am at today, I would not be a high school graduate, a college graduate, let alone a USC graduate, had it not been for my social worker, my teacher, mentors, people who just really looked out for me,” Diep said.
Diep hopes that through The Big Homie Project, she can give back the mentorship she received and provide essential guidance for students just like her.
“For most people who come from either underserved communities or come from the background I come from, we don’t talk about it,” Diep said. “It’s never ever a ‘poor me’ story because that will never ever get you out of the circumstance that you’re in. You have to be able to just push forward. And what I realized was that [with] a lot of kids in the community, especially East Palo Alto, I saw a mirror image of myself, basically.”
Diep’s search for adults to mentor students goes further than their success; she looks for mentors who come from similar backgrounds and demographics as the students she aims to help, as she believes representation is a key component for students to thrive.
“When you’re able to visualize and see someone who looks like you in a position or doing something that you might want to do, it’s more [easily] obtainable,” Diep said.
Makayla Miller, a senior at Palo Alto High School and a student in The Big Homie Project, hopes to study psychology or social work and said she has found great guidance in her “big homie” Auriel August, a Stanford general surgery resident. Miller said having a mentor who she can personally relate to and see herself in keeps her motivated and focused.
“When you see people on TV, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a one in a million chance that could happen for me,’” Miller said. “But when it’s someone that is in your community, someone that you can call on the phone and talk to if you want to, then it’s more like, ‘I can continue pursuing what I want to pursue and I can get to where I want to get because this person did.’”
Diep said exposure was the first step to fulfilling the achievement gap that many underprivileged youth face, but success in college and career pursuits is not the only goal of The Big Homie Project. The organization also prioritizes opening doors to new experiences and hobbies for the students, such as joining sports teams or going to recreational centers in the area.
“Some of these mentorship programs [are] very generic and it’s like, ‘Oh, let me help you with homework or let me help you with college applications,’ but [our goal is to] peel back that layer a little bit more,” Diep said.
Rock climbing was never something Miller would have considered taking up as a hobby had it not been for her mentor organizing an outing to the local Planet Granite facility.
“Kids — if they’re not given exposure to certain things, they’re not gonna know what it is,” Diep said. “But through rock climbing, [Miller’s] confidence was built and she’s now a very advanced climber because of The Big Homie Project.”
Julian Jenkins, the senior director of regional recruiting for the company Next College Student Athlete and avid supporter of The Big Homie Project, said he has seen how inspirational Diep has been to community members in the East Palo Alto and greater Silicon Valley area.
“There’s a lot of people that want to give back and a lot of people that like giving back to young people but may not just know how to do it,” Jenkins said. “So [Diep] gives them a platform because she’s actively doing it.”
Diep said The Big Homie Project is unique in that it not only works to inspire the youth in the area, but it also allows adults to see the impact they can have on students’ lives without it being dependent upon monetary donations or other financial help.
“Yeah, of course you can give them money … but time and physically being there … there’s not much to replace that,” Jenkins said.
Diep said she is certain volunteering as a mentor for marginalized youth and creating networking and bonding opportunities for them is far more impactful than any amount of money could be.
“For me, the monetary exchange is you and the position that you’re in and the fact that you can actually help a kid and you can change someone’s life without having to open up your wallet,” Diep said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said that the organization name was Boys & Girls Clubs of America. It is the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.