Helping middle-schoolers spark their talents

Guest post by Lauren Rosenfield, Udemy Instructor Account Development Associate

If you stop by Udemy’s San Francisco office on a Wednesday afternoon around 4:15 pm, you might be surprised to find 20 seventh and eighth graders from Roosevelt Middle School making a beeline straight to the snacks. Middle-schoolers aren’t any different from the rest of us, and who doesn’t like free snacks, right?

But don’t get the wrong idea. Despite the initial rush to the kitchen, these students come to Udemy for more than an easy way to spoil their dinners. They’ve got a weekly date with their Udemy Spark mentors. Spark is a national nonprofit that re-engages underserved seventh- and eighth-grade students by bringing them from the classroom to the workplace for project-based mentoring.

IMG_4453Having joined Udemy a few months ago from another Bay Area educational nonprofit, I was worried about becoming disconnected from the day-to-day educational work I’d previously enjoyed so much. But I quickly discovered my Udemy coworkers are just as driven to make a real difference in people’s lives through education. In fact, almost 15 percent of Udemy employees in San Francisco, including me, are participating as Spark mentors this semester. It’s just another example of “how much our employees believe in the mission of improving educational outcomes,” according to Udemy’s business operations manager and Spark mentor Monica Chellam.

Other Udemy mentors have been motivated to join the program by their own personal experiences. Community associate Che Harvey explains, “I had a mentor when I was younger, someone who treated me like a real person and not an obligation.” For Che, his fellow Udemy employees’ commitment to the Spark program shows that “we couldn’t have made it to where we are today without the help of others. Everything is a collaborative effort with positive encouragement.”

And the learning hasn’t been a one-way street either, as the middle-schoolers have taught us plenty during our interactions. For example, my mentee LaNaie told me at our first meeting she felt uncomfortable speaking in front of others and wanted to master this skill during her apprenticeship. We decided LaNaie’s project would be teaching a Udemy course on hip-hop dance for beginners. LaNaie seemed nervous at the prospect of appearing in videos for her course, but as soon as the camera started rolling, she was absolutely stellar! It turned out she was great at public speaking but had never been given the right opportunity to discover her strength. “Sometimes they just need the right questions or puzzles to solve” before they realize what they’re good at,” says associate creative director Danny Chung. Witnessing LaNaie’s success, I was reminded how important it is to dive head-first into the things that scare me the most so I, too, can explore my own unknown strengths.


Sure, it’s true office snacks are a big incentive for the students to show up every Wednesday, but it’s their hunger for knowledge that really keeps them coming back. The connections they’re making with Udemy employees and the skills they’re learning will stick with them long after the semester is over. Knowing that, I can’t imagine any better way to spend my Wednesday afternoons.