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  • Writer's pictureDina

Our Visit to the YMCA Teen Center in Berkeley

by Meilin Obinata

Last week, we (Ben, Daniel, Erica, Jay and Meilin) took a break from the office to visit the YMCA Teen Center in Berkeley’s students in College Blueprint program.

Why did we go?

  • We are always encouraging students to make time to do community service - and we wanted to make a conscious effort to include it in our schedule as well. To walk the walk!

What did we do?

  • We helped students inventory their Activities & Awards sections of the University of California application

  • We reviewed student drafts of responses to Personal Insight Questions, a required portion of the UC application

Here’s a breakdown of how we spent our afternoon with the College Blueprint students!

Ice-breaking / Boba Time!

We arrived while the students were taking a lunch break, making their own sandwiches and making small talk. As a surprise, we brought a variety of boba drinks (!!!) including black tea, matcha, and other flavors - an instant hit with the students! Our host, Jose Cruz, led us through introductions and gave us a roadmap of the UC application workshop exercises we were about to do.

Activities Inventory

To help us get to know students quickly and also to help them get rolling on the UC application, I recommended that we ask the students about their

extracurricular activities. We met with them, in pairs, helping them understand what “counts” as an activity or not.

Many of them had experience performing valuable translation / interpretation services for family members who were not as fluent in English - and did not realize how much time they were dedicating to their families.

Some of the students also provided tutoring / babysitting for family members, again not realizing that these are very relevant for the UC application!

The reality is that the UC is very interested in how students spend time overall - and these family responsibilities that students take for granted are actually important for admissions readers. Note that the UC instructions for the PIQ#1 - Leadership - lead applicants to consider what contributions they make in the home, directly asking: “For example, do you help out or take care of your family?”

Jay enjoyed getting to know the students and shared some thoughts about how they perceive themselves (and sometimes don’t realize their own strengths!): “It was great to meet the students and learn more about their experiences! I remember in particular one student who had a STEM-focused background talk about how she ‘didn’t really do anything creative.’ And then she showed me pictures of Robots that her Robotics Club (of which she is the captain) had built - which were intricate, complex, and designed with vibrant colors - and I asked her ‘how are you going to tell me you haven’t done anything creative, when you were in charge of a team that made that?’ It was fun to stretch out what her definition of ‘creativity’ was, and show her that it absolutely applied to her experiences as well.”

PIQ Response Feedback Sessions

We met students one-on-one to review drafts and provided feedback in lightning rounds, spending a few minutes each. Then we (the Enlighteens staff) split into smaller groups to give more in-depth feedback.

The drafts varied greatly. Some students struggled with their topics and we helped them match up their stories with PIQs that “fit” better. Others were uncertain about how to organize what they had written, i.e., how to convey their information.

Our priority, as volunteers, was to strengthen their drafts with our honest feedback. For the students I personally met, I taught them about different structures for essays and which ones might fit their topics best. I also taught them about outlining, and the importance of capturing specific details to help their storytelling.

Erica was so taken with the students she met. She said, “[They] blew me away with their incredible talents and life experiences.” One student created anime characters and designed clothing. Another student started work in a café at five o’clock every morning and worked multiple jobs to support his family.

However, they found the UC PIQ process challenging; she found that “while the students had impressive experiences, they had trouble picking the four topics for their UC PIQs.” To demystify the brainstorming process, she told them it was like “picking your four best photos from your high school photo album.” To help them strengthen their storytelling, Erica asked questions and analyzed their responses from the perspective of an admissions officer. “Experience would tell me if and when I hit ‘gold’ - and then I would urge them to write it down,” she explained.

Some of my colleagues also helped students understand their profiles overall, beyond the mechanics of the writing aspects of the UC application. For example, Daniel encouraged one of the students to improve her SAT performance, which could have a huge impact admissions-wise, and shared tips on what to study specifically to quickly raise her Writing and Reading scores on an upcoming test. With another student, he discussed her interests and ultimately piqued her curiosity about additional majors.

Reflection and Regroup

Jose gathered all of us to reflect on our experiences. The students thanked us and told us how valuable it was to receive our feedback and guidance. It was very touching!!! As Erica said, “Having the opportunity to share my expertise with these amazing students was fulfilling.”


  • We felt great giving something back to others! (and practicing what we preach!!!)

  • We were blown away by the amazing stories of these motivated and self-driven students as they endure enormous personal hardship

  • It was such a privilege to help these students, many of whom will be the first in their families to attend college as they pursue their dreams

Hope you enjoyed reading about our moments of Zen with the YMCA Teen Center’s College Blueprint students as much we enjoyed spending time with them!

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