By Nick Veronin
For the graduating seniors at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools, the words "social media" are most likely associated with Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. But starting with the class of 2011, Kathryn Hanson hopes students will begin thinking of another name: Zoomz.
Hanson is CEO and founder of Los Altos-based ALearn, the education-focused organization behind Zoomz.net. Zoomz aims to bring aspiring college students together with current college students and graduates in a Facebook-like social network, where they can find answers to questions, connect with peers and mentors, and get the support they need to successfully finish their higher education.
Before launching Zoomz, which places a priority on first-generation and low-income college hopefuls, Hanson polled current college students who had been the first in their families to pursue higher education. She said those surveyed provided the most enthusiastic answers to one question in particular — how they had managed to get to college.
"They poured their hearts out," Hanson said, noting that it was an "ah-ha" moment for her to see how enthusiastic these first-generation students were about helping other would-be first-generation students make the grade.
"If we could bottle that energy and excitement in sharing how to succeed and get to college, and build that relationship, that would be extraordinarily powerful."
The network, which launched in August 2009, currently has more than 700 members, including 158 Mountain View residents. Zoomz allows users to interact with one another in much the same way Facebook users interact, with status updates, wall posts, virtual gifts and picture sharing.
The network also has a bulletin board feature, where open discussions and forums are moderated by Zoomz staff, some of whom are first-generation college graduates, like Carlos Torres.
Torres, the Zoomz webmaster, went to Santa Maria High School on the California Central Coast. He said that although his parents were supportive of his effort to attend college, they were not familiar with the process of applying and could provide little more than encouragement.
He said he would likely not have been accepted to Santa Clara University — where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in commerce and management — if it had not been for a high school counselor who walked him through the application process.
It is precisely that kind of guidance Torres hopes to provide to Zoomz users.
"Giving them that motivation — that's a huge sense of accomplishment in itself," he said. "Giving them hope. If I could do it, they can do it, too."
Zoomz is not only for first-generation college students, however.
Mackenzie Cooper, marketing manager for Zoomz, attended Los Altos High School and graduated from Stanford in 2007. She is not the first in her family to attend college. All the same, she said, getting into college and sticking with it is no walk in the park.
"There is a lack of clarity on how to get to college," she said, "and then once you're there, how to pay for it."
California high schools have, on average, about one college counselor for every 1,000 students, Cooper said.
"Most high school students get maybe one meeting with their high school college counselor," she said.
She said Zoomz wants to give high-schoolers "the insight and encouragement necessary" to make it through college and foster a strong "college-going attitude."
Building that attitude — and building a new social network, — poses challenges to the Zoomz team. Cooper acknowledged that getting users to sign up is perhaps the easiest part of promoting Zoomz. Keeping students active on the network is another matter.
Before coming to Zoomz, Cooper worked at Palo Alto-based Ning, a company that help people create their own personalized social networks. Zoomz is built on the Ning network. While at Ning, Cooper saw many networks spring up and then fizzle out.
Currently, she and her team have been promoting Zoomz in Bay Area high school college prep courses, where the site has been well received by students.
"Anything we can do to get engagement and interaction is a plus," Hansen explained.