What started as an idea of Abel Salinas’s became detailed pencil sketches of various screens and logos in Roderick Wilkins’s--Salinas’s friend and eventual co-founder--notes. Now, there’s Buzztrek: “a one-stop resource app for students to seek and give support to fellow community members,” according to its website.
Salinas, a second-year computer science masters student began working on this app in 2016 with Roderick Wilkins and Merissa Bridgeman. Four years later, it’s finally out and ready to download.
“The app was built because of things that my co-founders and I were able to observe as we went through our college experiences,” Salinas recalled. “One thing we specifically noted with college students, is that there’s so much value in being able to get advice from upperclassmen.”
Salinas continued on to describe his own college experience, being a Latino student in his program.
“In computer science, in my master’s program, I noticed that there are very few other Latino students in my classes,” Salinas said. “So not having a sense of belonging or a sense of community and being afraid to ask for help are the pillars that we built Buzztrek around.”
Through Buzztrek, one can do anything from anonymously open up about discrimination they faced to give advice on how to navigate certain academic and personal situations in college or even to share a funny story.
“College students are already getting such awesome advice from upperclassmen, we kind of wanted to democratize that and make that available to everyone through this online platform,” Salinas said.
Salinas is the app’s CEO, meaning he led a lot of the main discussions around the app and was its main developer. One of his co-founders Wilkins, a digital media arts and engineering masters student at Louisiana State University, was the designer and social media person for the app. Meanwhile, Bridgeman, a computer science undergrad student at the Make School, was the chief operating officer of Buzztrek and the other co-founder.
The three students met in 2018, while interning for Intel. They were all a part of Code 2040, a nonprofit organization that works to encourage and support Black and Latinx technologists in their innovations despite the structural barriers that are in place.
Through Code 2040, Salinas, Wilkins and Bridgeman were able to discuss diversity in their field and share their own experiences in college that helped them realize the need for something like Buzztrek--something that could help make the transition from high school to college smoother and make students feel less alone.
“In my freshman and first few years of college, I think it was very easy for me to feel alone and not really realize that we’re all going through this,” Salinas said. “As I became more open to talking about things like mental health with my friends and classmates, there was something really special about knowing that I wasn’t alone and having that support system.”
It was this experience at the nonprofit that sparked Salinas’s idea for Buzztrek--he wanted to create a resource that made mental health less of a taboo among college students, especially those of color.
Salinas started a formal market research process to gain more insight on what specific ways he can help these said students. Salinas and Bridgeman conducted formal interviews to learn about people’s college experiences. They also involved university staff to understand how his app could properly add to the existing programs of support the school already has.
“We found that students of color are often afraid to ask for help, they don’t have a sense of belonging, a sense of community,” Salinas states. “I don’t want to clump all students of color into one category, but there’s a lot of unique issues that we’re more likely to deal with.”
Salinas also reached out to Wilkins--who had just started dabbling in design--to do market research from a design perspective as well as design Buzztrek and its features.
“We kind of went in headfirst, just trying to see how this will work out and ended up putting out a pretty good product,” Wilkins said. “It seems like a lot of people are really liking it and are definitely kind of growing and gravitating towards the platform.”
Wilkins actually ended up designing the whole app--everything from the light, airy color scheme (“we wanted it to feel inviting and like an open space”) to the hexagon “B” logo (“like a beehive”) to the overall layout and tabs (“everything you see on the app aesthetically, that was all me”).
He also touched on the importance of being part of something that is accessible to students of color, saying that "as a minority, we are conditioned to do some kind of unconventional thing to deal with [problems] instead of doing the simple thing and asking for help. He continues to explain that this app will be a resource in which these students can be anonymous and get the help they need at their own pace without feeling too much pressure.
Dr. Edden Agonafer, a clinical psychologist and Keck assistant professor, praises the app and the way that it’s providing students with an alternative way to seek care.
“I think [Buzztrek] is really creative, it’s amazing,” Dr. Agonafer said. “As we know, the mental health initiative is really a responsibility for all of us. It’s not just the work of mental health workers to address as a community effort, so it really excites me when I know there are students around campus who are working hard to make sure that people are aware of what resources are available.”
It’s clear that everything about Buzztrek is made with care and compassion for the user. For example, the name being a play on the way college is a journey or trek as well as the ways in which students are similar to bees.
“We’re all just kind of going through the same thing and working to the same goal,” Salinas reasoned. “We’re all just like bees in this system that are going to work together and pick each other up to get through this.”
As for the future of Buzztrek and its next steps, Salinas plans on conducting more user research to make the existing features better as well as create new ones to make sure that this app is the best resource it can be.