Globe Rhode Island’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at firstname.lastname@example.org. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Elvia Perez is the founder of EmpowerU, a tech startup that looks to address disparities by providing students with a pathway to obtaining an education. Perez is finalizing EmpowerU’s web portal and app so students can access all the information and resources through their phones. Her five-year goal is to make EmpowerU available to students in thousands of school districts across the nation, helping them access educational opportunities, belong to supportive communities, and realize their full potential.
Perez placed third in the Brown University Venture Prize this spring, where she was was awarded $10,000 to help finalize her app.
Q: How does EmpowerU address educational disparities?
Perez: We connect students to resources such as scholarships, college exploration pages, internships, and summer programs, cultivating supportive communities and incentivizing students to take advantage of these opportunities. Students are connected to these resources through a sustainable database where school counselors can log in to their own accounts and post credible sources.
EmpowerU will soon be implementing gamification... anytime they take advantage of an opportunity, students can go on to accumulate points and receive badges for their efforts.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your background and how you came up with this idea?
Perez: My parents are both from Mexico and came to this country in hopes of providing my brother and I with a better life. I am a proud first-generation student who was always passionate about giving back to my community and helping others in need.
This idea came about through my own experiences as I have experienced education disparities firsthand. My high school only had one college counsellor for over 500 students. The majority of my peers in high school did not know how to apply to college, if it was a feasible option for them, and whether or not they would be able to afford it. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who had gone to college.
Today, I am proud to say that today I am a first-generation, low-income student, daughter of immigrants attending Brown University on a full scholarship. But I was very fortunate to learn about the resources out there for students just like me... I want to widen the bridge and help more students go to college.
Q: Why is something like EmpowerU necessary?
Perez: Coming from a position of wealth puts you at an enormous advantage when it comes to receiving higher education. But that’s not the majority of our population in the U.S. I believe that it’s important to help students who come from more underserved populations as well as those who lack the resources, support, and community they need to get to college.
Q: What do you see as the biggest disparities in education, both for high schoolers and for new college students?
Perez: The lack of resources lower-income students have when it comes to applying for college. In my research, I found that 92 percent of students I spoke with felt like they were pretty much “on their own” when they were applying to colleges. They had to proactively spend hours searching for scholarships and other tools that would enable them to receive higher education. The majority of their counselors were also too overwhelmed and overworked to provide them with individualized attention and support. In general, there’s a lack of counselors, mental health resources, and funding for schools in urban areas.
When students arrive on campus, there’s also a lack of academic support when transitioning to such a rigorous environment.
Q: How can students access EmpowerU?
Perez: We are finalizing our EmpowerU app and will begin piloting in a couple of schools this fall. We want to be able to do some rigorous student testing before launching it in the App Store.