University of Rochester students are introducing a new project to serve underprivileged high schoolers in a commitment to level the playing field for colleges. Organizers are paying it forward and paving the way for others to have the same opportunities.

Attending a university is something Adarsh Mavathaveedu and Hana Zhang always knew they wanted to do.

“College has been fun; it’s been a lot of adjusting,” Zhang said. “Being the oldest daughter of an immigrant family, I think, was the biggest motivator.”

“It was all about connecting with similar-minded people,” Mavathaveedu said. “Very ambitious and very self-driven, and once I found kind of like my little group, we all kind of threw ourselves at this.”

Enjoying their years spent at the University of Rochester, Mavathaveedu and Zhang knew everyone should be able to experience the same opportunity.

“I was always the kid that had Band-Aids in their backpack for classmates,” Zhang said. “And just like I feel like helping is just helping others ... has just been a big constant in my life. So I think just hoping high schoolers go to college is like second nature to me.”

That need to help led to the project “Level the Field,” an entirely student-led initiative founded by both Zhang and Mavathaveedu. It provides free mentoring and resources to underprivileged students to level the playing field in the college application process.

“It's not just like an informational gap is also a financial gap as in a lot of the services that are kind of targeting college application advising are usually $50 an hour to maybe even $250,” Mavathaveedu said. “We're mostly kind of mentoring just our siblings and their friends. And now a year later, we have, I think, 46 high school students across the tri-state area as well as states like Virginia and Idaho. We've connected with 11 different high schools.”

It includes working with seniors at Edison Career and Technology High School.

“Just getting a feeling of applying and actually figuring out what you want to do,” high school student Nyziria Simmons said. “Like me, I'm actually really trying to look for programs for veterinarians. A little taste of medicine before we actually get started.”

Simmons is looking forward to not only a new path in her career, but also being the first college graduate in her family.

“Being the first college graduate, I want that spot,” Simmons said. “I am an independent person, but just not having a teacher ... or professor is definitely helpful. So now I just got used to just doing [your] work by yourself.”

Mentors hope the program raises awareness of the barriers preventing some from applying to college, but also encourages them to overcome those obstacles.

“I wanted to make sure that students who aren't in the same position as me, who are less fortunate, have an outlet that they can talk to someone and hear about,” vice president Michael Christof said. “It's like your duty to help pay that forward.”

“We live in such a big bubble that doing initiatives like these helps expand my horizon more,” Zhang said. “Don't be afraid to just ask for help, because you never realize how many people are rooting for you until you actually try to get help.”

To learn more about the project, you can click here.