Finding community and a sense of belonging in college can be a big challenge for students—especially at an urban commuter campus like Portland State. Without peer support, many undergraduate hopefuls fall short of their aspirations, thus resulting in wasted time, energy and resources. Universities across the country are riddled with high dropout and failure rates. According to the National Center for Academic Transformation, four out of 10 students will drop out of school before completing their degrees. While there have been numerous efforts to increase student success from the top down, one recent PSU graduate is tackling the problem with a more lateral approach.
“The most untapped, undercapitalized source of support for students isn’t up or down, it’s in between—from me to you and you to me,” said Brian Forrester, who graduated last term.
Forrester is the founder of BuddyUp, a social media site that helps students connect with classmates and organize study groups.
In the era of Twitter handles and Facebook stalking, social media has almost become an extension of everyday life. Many have argued that digital culture has had a negative impact on student success, among other things; but where some see a problem, Forrester sees opportunity.
“In the last five years or so, there’s been a lot of pitting social media against academic success,” he said. “With BuddyUp we’re leveraging the principles of social media that have traditionally been a hindrance to students and we’re using them to help people succeed in the classroom.”
BuddyUp allows students to search for and organize study sessions based on availability, location, course and language. For ease of use, the website has been integrated with PSU systems, meaning any PSU student can visit getbuddyup.com and sign up for an account using their Odin login information.
Forrester spent six years at PSU as an undergrad, and he said it took him at least three years to feel like he knew anybody.
“In a school of 30,000 students, it’s hard not to feel lost amid the sea of people,” he said.
With large class sizes making it difficult to connect to professors, many students feel as though they’re relegated to struggling through course material alone.
“In college you should feel like you’re part of a community; like you belong there,” Forrester said.
Forrester believes BuddyUp is especially valuable for students who are too shy to make themselves vulnerable in the classroom.
“Every time you reach out to someone, you’re taking a bit of a risk. When you do it on social media, it feels a little safer,” he said.
‘I’m here because I’m a failure’
Forrester describes BuddyUp as an idea born out of failure.
“When I went from class to class pitching the idea to students at the start of [fall] term, I’d open with, ‘I’m here because I’m a failure,’” he said. “That instantly gets people’s attention.”
About a year and a half ago Forrester found himself in need of a statistics course to complete his degree in psychology; and as someone who had always struggled with math and science, this terrified him.
Understanding the challenge ahead of him, Forrester only signed up for two classes that term and immersed himself in the statistics course with help from tutors. Despite his efforts, he failed the class.
Shaken by his experience with failure, he began to question whether college was really for him. Not willing to give up that easily, he signed up to retake the course the following term.
During the first day of his second attempt at statistics, Forrester stood up and shared his experience of failure with the class. He sent around a sheet of paper for people who were interested in study groups to put their contact info on.
“I just sort of said, ‘This is hard and we can get through this together,’ not knowing what to expect,” he said. “When the paper came back, it looked like the entire class had signed up.”
Forrester said that throughout the term, everyone learned everyone’s name and study sessions were being organized weekly.
“Nine weeks later I ended up with my first A in a math class in my life,” he said. “I ended that experience with this idea that maybe there’s something here worth exploring.”
In the year that followed, Forrester submitted a reTHINK PSU grant proposal for BuddyUp in partnership with the math department. The idea made it to the last round of the highly competitive process, but ultimately it did not receive funding.
Yet again, not willing to give up that easily, Forrester decided to pursue the idea on his own.
He pitched the idea to a class of computer science students in the hopes that they would accept him as a client for their capstone project. Over the summer, CS students built the core of BuddyUp’s software.
Aaron Devore, a senior computer science major, was a part of the capstone group that accepted Forrester’s invitation to design a website for BuddyUp.
“We chose it because it looked interesting, and it could help people out,” Devore said. “It had a good side effect.”
Devore said he struggled through some of the classes that BuddyUp is available for, adding that they probably would have been much easier had it been an option at the time.
After the capstone project ended, Devore stayed on to work with the BuddyUp team for a few additional months.
The beta version of BuddyUp was launched at PSU at the beginning of fall term, using calculus, statistics and a couple of chemistry classes as its test subjects.
Forrester pitched BuddyUp to educators on campus before the school year began, and those who were enthusiastic about the idea invited him to speak in front of the class to inform students of the new resource.
“Brian came into my stats class and introduced BuddyUp at the beginning of fall term,” said junior marketing major Niko Hughes. “My buddy and I signed up right there in class.”
Hughes used the site for a finance class and was happy to receive an A. He said he’s interested in seeing how the business develops.
“The idea works,” he said. “It’s a lot easier than walking up to someone and asking them to grab coffee and study. It takes the awkwardness out of things.”
During the first week of fall term, roughly 200 students signed up to use the site. By the end of the term, BuddyUp had around 250 users paying a fee of $2.99 per month.
“We experimented with the fee in the fall but that didn’t feel right,” Forrester said, adding that he’d like to see the university foot the bill.
“We’re already paying a shit-ton in tuition—and you can write that.”
BuddyUp 2.0 and beyond
In an effort to take things to the next level, Forrester said the second round of beta testing at PSU will be completely free of charge, despite incurring costs.
“BuddyUp needs to achieve critical mass,” he said. “Starting in January, any student in any class can create a profile for free.”
Forrester sees this term as an opportunity to grow BuddyUp’s user network. Based on buy-in from faculty who have expressed interest in integrating it into their classes, Forrester and his team expect to have 2,500-5,000 users come on board during winter quarter.
“We’re taking a blind leap of faith,” he said. “But we’re confident because it makes sense.”
Forrester said he’s excited about the next few months because a bigger user base will yield more quantitative and qualitative data regarding the effectiveness of the site.
The next step after winter term is to take BuddyUp to PCC, OSU and other universities in the region. With sights set on expansion and millions of users nationwide, Forrester expects to be immersed in BuddyUp for the next three to five years.
“The way our generation connects is way different than the ways that previous generations have connected,” he said. “We can increase the quality of education through collaboration, creating systems for students to connect with each other via social media. It’s just so obvious.”