Written by Audrey Wisch, co-founder & CEO, fall of 2022
In March of 2020, when I was sent home from Stanford to the East Coast due to the pandemic, I decided that I wanted to tutor students. It started as an individual pursuit.
Inevitably, when I started teaching the topics I was most passionate about to my students, this became my favorite thing to bring up at pandemic dinner table discussions. “Today I taught Emma about the prison industrial complex. Can you imagine if you had learned that in 7th grade? They don’t even teach that in high school!”
Alec first got involved because I didn’t want to tutor Emma in math. He loved math. I had a feeling he was better suited for the job.
But when Alec and I were living together in the pandemic and overhearing each others’ Zoom sessions, we couldn’t stop talking about our students.
“That was so cute seeing how Ryan lit up when you taught him about how airplanes fly!” I would exclaim as soon as Alec wrapped up his session.
Or Alec after my session… “I had no idea that the US government enacted repatriations of Mexicans who were American citizens in the 1930s. How do they not teach that in school?”
We even learned from each other by overhearing each others’ sessions.
Fast forward, I was tutoring Emma, Annabelle, Annabelle’s brother Mark, Stella, and Graham… Alec was tutoring Emma, Stella, Graham, and Ryan.
Annabelle’s brother Mark asked for biology help. I thought… Ashwin who was my Stanford Pre-orientation Trip (SPOT) leader and now my TA in Professor Sapolsky’s iconic Human Behavioral Biology class would be the best tutor ever. I almost shut down that thought, thinking no way my Stanford TA who is teaching 60 Stanford students will want to tutor a 10th grade boy in biology. I decided to shoot my shot and texted Ashwin. He said he’d love to tutor Mark! I connected them via text that evening.
It started with me texting my most passionate best friends who were the type of friends that I learned so much from to Alec and I excitedly looking at each other, somewhat in disbelief shrieking: “can you believe X is going to be a mentor??!” We thought these mentors were out of our league. Upperclassmen who we regarded as our mentors became mentors for CC.
I’d always think to myself in awe “imagine having access to these people as a middle or high schooler…”
In the second week of June of 2020, two weeks after launching our first Wix website, we hosted a Zoom for all the new mentors to meet. There were 14 of us.
At some point, as I was interviewing what felt like an endless stream of incredible college students, I had this thought that oh my gosh I cannot “keep these people to myself.” I had to connect them to each other. It may have started with me interviewing someone and screaming internally that they would click so well with the person we welcomed onto the team yesterday.
I can’t remember when or where or why, but I decided to start organizing Zoom hangouts for mentors to meet one another. At first it started as more informal conversations with some icebreaker questions I introduced. Then came Kahoot trivia nights. Later in the year we began to play Quiplash.
I’d text all my friends who were CC mentors to “PLEASE JOIN THE ZOOM!” It took some rallying at first. Then they’d text me after “damn, the other mentors are so cool.”
As fall came around, I committed to taking time off from school to fully devote myself to Curious Cardinals. I wanted to bring my most inspiring friends with me to build this together. August consisted of daily late night conversations with me outlining the reasons why my friends should take time off too to join me to pursue this vision together. I even had some conversations with their parents.
Somehow, despite not even knowing each other, they all agreed. They knew me and they loved teaching their passions at Curious Cardinals that summer. The motley mix included: my most accomplished, curious friend from my high school (she had already taught Feminist and Fashion History courses), the first friend I had made at Stanford who lived across from me in our freshmen dorm (Cosmetic Chemistry, Public Speaking, & Women in STEM), Ashwin my SPOT leader and TA (Human Behavioral Biology), my friend whom I met at the club fair day (kindergartener whisperer teaching reading to the little ones), and my boyfriend who became my co-founder (The Future of Aviation). The day after I spoke on CNN, everyone moved in to start quarantining and rethinking K-12 education in the wake of the pandemic together in what we called the Cardinal Crib, in a quasi construction site home in West Hollywood.
As the East Coast leaves faded from green to orange and then covered in snow, we moved out of the Cardinal Crib and everyone went their separate ways. But this eclectic bunch exemplified the makeup of the Curious Cardinals Community going forward.
In May of 2021, we organized our first in person gathering - a Curious Cardinals Stanford Dish Hike.
For me, I wanted to connect everyone because they were so seemingly different - different majors, backgrounds, hobbies, identities - but had this enormous passion and genuine love of learning that unified them all. I felt like they were bound to be connected to one another in some manner.
I see the Curious Cardinals mentor community meaning something different to everyone.
One way I define this community to be impactful is whether or not it influences the trajectory of your life in some shape or form. This could mean that Curious Cardinals hosted a dinner and you met your future boyfriend there. Curious Cardinals hosted a Zoom and you met your future co-founder. Curious Cardinals connected you to a student whose parents helped you find a summer internship, which opened 25 other doors of opportunity. At Curious Cardinals, you taught young girls about feminist studies and this accelerated your own personal healing journey from trauma you still carry with you from high school. At Curious Cardinals, you learned how much you love teaching and you went on to be a teacher after graduating.
In our community, I hope to facilitate connections that open doors of opportunities for our mentors (and all stakeholders), which hopefully infuse their lives with joy, value, fun, stimulation, engagement, learnings and purpose.
Another way I define community is the opposite of loneliness. Community means you feel like you are part of something that is greater than yourself alone. That might mean you think you are super quirky and that no one else shares your niche passions. But, you come to Curious Cardinals and meet another mentor who does in fact share that passion and then are paired with a student who wants to learn that topic from you. Maybe it’s other parts of your identity that feel like scars that you hope will heal and remain unseen until then or that evoke sentiments of shame… but then you meet another mentor or are paired with a student going through that very same thing. Community makes you feel seen and heard.
This sentiment of the opposite of loneliness may come from bonding over yesterday’s Curious Cardinals session, just like Alec and I could not stop gushing over all that our students learned, what we taught them, what they were capable of, or how much we believed in them. Many mentors who applied heard about Curious Cardinals living with their friend in the pandemic who was a current Curious Cardinals mentor and kept raving about their sessions over dinner time discussions. Community means having people who listen, relate, and want to hear more.
Community may also be a source of enormous pride and camaraderie: something you want to cheer about, wear merch to represent, or light up with excitement when you meet someone else who belongs to that community too.
Think about the community that comes with being a devoted sports team fan. You feel an attachment to each player’s performance as you watch them take a penalty kick or go up to bat, holding your breath with a combination of angst and thrill. Or when you feel the natural urge to fist bump a fellow fan wearing your team’s jersey on the street. You root for your team with them. It feels so good! So right!
Beyond your genuine love of the team and the sport, perhaps you grew up watching the games with your dad. Hearing the team’s name evokes memories of you and your dad yelling at the TV together, the fine smell of hot dogs, beer, and sweat, and hugging your friends in the streets of your hometown that one year your team won the World Series. You want to cherish these precious memories forever and pass them onto your kids to experience the devotion, the thrill and the fun of it all too.
Maybe this type of camaraderie comes from belonging to the same political party, being a part of the same affinity group… you immediately know there are lots of things that you can talk about together. There’s a sense of sworn trust when you meet others who belong to this community. Part of that is because belonging to this community means you ascribe to a certain set of values. Part of it is that belonging to this community means you believe in something together. Belief is something so powerful that moors us to all something greater than ourselves. And this community implies that we believe together.
At Curious Cardinals, these values entail championing individuality, fighting for education equity and access, never stopping to challenge the status quo, being truthful, empathizing with people’s differences and supporting them based on their different needs, exalting a love for lifelong learning, advocating for nonlinear journeys and the pursuit of purpose and passion fueled by curiosity… This community of quirky misfits are unapologetically themselves. We were maybe told to conform in high school and want to sing proud and loud to younger students to never stop being themselves!!