Mercury News Columnist
SAN JOSE -- Where Stephanie Bravo comes from, the working-class Northside neighborhood of San Jose, the title of "Doctora Bravo" sounded awfully nice in Spanish. And it almost rang true until the bright, over-achieving Mexican-American left medical school.
"Medicine wasn't playing to my strengths," she said recently. "It was very trying, because it kept me from doing other things that I was good at."
One of those things earned her an invitation to the White House and recognition as an up-and-coming Latina leader. She is the founder and president of StudentMentor.org, a free online mentoring service that in fewer than three years has paired 10,000 college students across the country with 6,000 professionals eager to help them set goals and stay on course.
"It's built like a tech company but with a social mission," Bravo said at Santa Clara University, where she is assistant director for social media in the office of marketing and communications.
At 27, she has the big brown eyes of a curious student framed by the long, arching eyebrows of a super model, giving her a near perfect look for a millennial generation leader -- optimistic, smart and cool.
What separates StudentMentor from traditional mentoring programs is that the students and mentors seldom meet face-to-face. Well, they sort of do on Skype, a video-communication service. Yet, they manage to deal with heavy issues, from choosing careers and finding money for tuition, to coping with outside responsibilities and building the confidence to stay in school and graduate.
"It's 90 percent online, computer to computer," Bravo explained with a laugh. "We're millennials. We grew up using technology. Everyone is on a gadget of some sort."
Growing up on the Northside, Bravo took free tennis lessons from Don Johnson, an African-American coach from back east who took a young Arthur Ashe under his wing and later helped the late tennis champion establish a nationwide tennis program for disadvantaged kids.
Bravo's parents found the money for private piano lessons and a piano teacher in the neighborhood. Her grandfather owned El Tarasco Restaurant, a local landmark known for its mural of an ancient Mexican warrior until it was unceremoniously whitewashed after the restaurant closed. After middle school, Bravo boarded buses for the one-hour ride to a white high school in suburban San Jose.
"My mom decided education was important and that her girls needed to go to a good school without violence, drugs and high rates of failure," Bravo recalled.
But just as the busing ultimately failed to integrate schools or deliver equal education, it didn't work out personally for the bright, barrio girl. She still remembers being on the outside of a conversation between affluent girls discussing which stylish and expensive Coach purse to buy.
"I felt out of place," Bravo said. "My whole world had been turned upside-down."
After transferring and excelling at Lincoln High, a more urban campus, Bravo entered San Jose State. Still undecided about her future, she took special "interest tests" designed to help students find their true calling. She scored high on nursing. Nothing against nurses, but she was a little miffed.
"Forget that! I'm going to be a doctor," she told herself. "I did not want to take orders. I wanted to be in charge."
Open the mind
While taking pre-med courses at San Jose State, she joined a mentoring program for minority medical students at Stanford University. She was surprised to meet her assigned mentor, Matthew Goldstein, who was from a rich, Jewish family.
"He was a shock and I had to open my mind a bit," she said. "But Matthew was just what I needed. He actually prompted my affinity for mentoring. He showed me that mentoring meant getting past your comfort zone, trusting other people for their experience and getting through to a sense of purpose."
Taking a hard look around, Bravo noticed the high number of low-income, minority students dropping out of community and four-year colleges. Four of five failed to earn bachelor's degrees by their mid-20s, she said.
After entering the University of California-Irvine medical school she started a similar mentoring program. She was already working online to raise money for orphanages and water projects in Cambodia when the idea of online mentoring popped into her head.
She took a break from medical school and teamed up with Ash Jafari, a partner in the Cambodia effort, to launch StudentMentor.org in October 2010.
"We wanted to bring mentoring to the masses," she said.
They did, and fast. Latina magazine named her one of 10 "Next Generation Latinas" in 2012. The White House invitation came earlier in 2011. Although they were greeted by President Barack Obama, the two actually spoke with White House insiders and congressmen about the details of the program.
"That's when the tables turned, with that visit," Bravo said. "What I was doing had value. I liked it and decided to switch my career to education."
Borrowing from her stereotype-busting experience with Goldstein, StudentMentor does not figure race or ethnicity into the pairing of students with mentors. It does it by field of study, career goals, financial advice and so on.
"I was interested in pursuing a finance career, so I looked for mentors who currently work in the financial services industry," said Jason Au, a senior at San Francisco State. "I think the difference in background did not matter. All the mentors I got a chance to connect with were all very helpful and able to give me great insights about their careers."
The online approach appeals especially to busy mentors with hectic jobs or family obligations, or who live far from the students best suited for them.
"Mentoring anytime, anywhere, sounded awesome," said Joelle Brinkley, a graduate student, wife and mother with a full-time job. "I enrolled because it worked with my schedule but more importantly would allow me to actually have an impact on individuals' lives in a new way."
Another mentor, Rachel Collier, misses the face-to-face meetings with students, but going online makes for more frequent contact.
"It's a simple idea that didn't exist before," Collier said. "What a great way to connect with people."
With such early success, Bravo said she and Jafari are seeking grants to grow StudentMentor. Currently, the program runs on about $350,000 annually, much of that from in-kind services donated by 15 volunteers and paid part-timers.
For now, she's happy at SCU, a Jesuit college where she can blend her social media skills with Catholic teaching on social justice and equality. She still lives in the family homestead in the old neighborhood.
"I like educating and bringing people together," Bravo said. "That's what mentoring is for me."
Do you have a story for Eastside/Westside? Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 or email@example.com.