IST student creates app to help underrepresented students find a community

IST student creates app to help underrepresented students find a community

Delaney Peterman and Megan GentMay 11, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Joel Sakyi first came to Penn State, he felt lost. It wasn’t until a friend introduced him to BLUEprint, a peer mentoring organization sponsored by the Paul Robeson Cultural Center for first year and change-of-campus students of color, that he truly felt like he had found his place. Since then, Sakyi has created a way to help new students, particularly those who are underrepresented, discover where they belong, too — all at the touch of a button.

Sakyi, who will earn his bachelor’s degree in information sciences and technology in August, launched Vybrnt LLC — a startup through which he developed a mobile application that works to connect students with campus organizations that match their backgrounds and interests.

“Students of color in our community struggle to find different groups to fit into,” Sakyi said. “I wanted to have this tool so that students of color can find a safe space and connect them to the resources on campus.”

Through the centralized app, students can browse different student organizations and learn more about those that match their interests. Users are also able to connect with the organizations’ leaders and learn how to join.

Sakyi has been working for the past year to bring his concept to life. Originally an individual effort, the project now has the support of a diverse ten-person team. Each member is responsible for a different aspect of the project, such as marketing, coding or artificial intelligence.

And the team’s work is being recognized. VYBRNT was one of five ideas selected out of 50 to participate in Happy Valley LaunchBox’s Summer Founders Program. Run through Invent Penn State, the program gives student teams $15,000 grants and developmental support to drive their startups.

“It’s really an honor we got selected for this program. Many great teams apply and only a few get in, but I’m ecstatic that they found value in what my team and I are trying to accomplish with this app,” Sakyi said. “With their guidance, we’re going to be able to take the company into its next stage as a full-fledged business.”

Building an idea

Once Sakyi had a concrete vision, the real work began. Since he had never developed an app before, Sakyi spent last summer researching how to code and practicing with different programs. Luckily, classes he had taken in the College of IST gave him the foundation to begin.

“A lot of the concepts I’ve learned in my classes align with a lot of stuff I’ve done for the app, such as human-centered design, JavaScript concepts, node.js, and having to talk to your direct audience about the product you’re trying to make,” he said. “The classes were definitely hard, but I felt more motivation in the sense that I could directly apply what I learned to the real world. I’ve realized, ‘Okay, so this is why what I’m learning is really important.’”

In addition to his classroom knowledge and collaboration with his teammates, Sakyi received help from mentors along the way. One of those individuals is Steven Haynes, teaching professor of information sciences and technology, who gave Sakyi some advice on where to begin.

“He told me that I should start by surveying more people and trying to get more information about how I can implement things that the users need into my product,” Sakyi said.

Jason Gines, assistant dean for inclusion and diversity engagement in the College of IST, also guided Sakyi throughout the process. Gines sees the significance of the project as it works to promote community among underrepresented students at Penn State.

“Joel let me know that he not only trained himself to do the coding for this app but actually laid out the thinking that there was a lack of technology that is connecting students who don’t always fit into the mainstream populations at Penn State,” Gines said. “It’s a game-changer. This app is an instant resource that gives them access in ways that would take them several months, if not years, to find.”

A balancing act

Along with developing his app from scratch, Sakyi also had a full-time summer internship position with Validatek. Whenever he had down time, he spent it researching and coding for the app. The challenge he faced this year was finding a balance between an 18-credit schedule, full-time job search, and app development. Sakyi said he has committed to spending 15 hours a week on the app.

“[I pushed] myself to get through everything. It’s a daunting task to take on, but I wanted to push through to find a solution to this problem I saw,” he said.

As Sakyi has managed to successfully develop his app while fulfilling his responsibilities as a student, he encourages other student entrepreneurs to pursue their projects.

“There’s definitely no better time to start a business than when you’re in college, because Penn State has ample amounts of resources,” he said.

Leaving a mark on campus

Though Sakyi’s original goal was to have VYBRNT available on the app store for students to use this spring, the COVID-19 outbreak has pushed the timeline back slightly. The team is still working hard and using the virtual Summer Founder’s Program to further advance the app and is aiming to release it in the fall.

“We’re going to take this time to keep developing it internally, making sure it runs better, has better design, includes more features, and is more secure as well,” Sakyi said.

While he has not been able to see his idea come to life while he was still a student, Sakyi said watching this project grow from an idea to a prototype to now a true application is a rewarding mark to leave on campus.

“The thing I’m most excited about is having new first-year students just being able to find their communities from the jump,” he said. “Penn State is a very big place, [and it’s sometimes easy for students to get] lost and not reach their potential.” he said.

He concluded, “We all have our own path, and we all will get there at some point, but the more help you have along the way will really elevate you.”


This story is informational in nature and should not be considered an endorsement of any product or application.

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