A collage of different panels hosted by Desyde on Zoom.

Courtesy of Jake Roll

A collage of different panels hosted by Desyde on Zoom.

May 7, 2020

Cornellian Co-founded Startup Brings College Visits to Students’ Homes

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Committing to a college can be one of the most stressful decisions high schoolers have to make, but a Cornellian co-founded platform has stepped up to make the process easier.

The idea for Desyde materialized when Jake Roll ’21 and his friends from high school, Ethan Heimlich and Dan Genzelev, noticed that the COVID-19 pandemic prevented family and friends from gathering information about colleges.

Desyde hosts online webinars where a panel of two or more students from a given college talk about their experience and answer common questions, which are determined by surveys from friends and family. Then they open the floor to questions students attending the Zoom session might have.

“We thought it would be an interesting and helpful project to put up this website and see if people would find it valuable and useful,” Roll said.

Prospective college students seem to have appreciated it: so far, there has been sizable turnout for the sessions, with hundreds of students having attended their 14 webinars hosted so far.

Although the platform is just a few weeks old, they’ve already received positive feedback from high schoolers who’ve made use of their service. The team recently received an email from a student who committed to a college because of one of Desyde’s webinars.

Even though decision day for many current high school seniors passed, the group is continuing to host webinars for current juniors and students who want to know more about the schools they’ve committed to.

Panelists come from a variety of majors, and the topics they discuss — including dorms, dining halls, Greek life and academics — are equally as varied. The creators have been asking for current college students to volunteer to share their experiences as the platform expands.

“My sister’s a junior in high school, so I listened to some of the [school-sponsored] webinars she’s attended and realized that there was a need for this.” Genzelev, a senior at Emory University, said.

According to the creators, what makes Desyde’s webinars different from information sessions colleges offer is that the absence of administrators allows students to share not only the positive aspects of their university experience, but also negative points that the school might not share during sessions they host.

Students often ask panelists what they don’t like about their school and what administrative changes they’d like to see.

“What we feel is really unique with us is the unbiasedness of our platform,” Heimlich, a senior at the University of Toronto, said. “Because at the end of the day, [information sessions hosted by universities] are marketing because you’re trying to get students to commit to your school.”

However, Desyde continues to face several challenges, including establishing themselves as a legitimate source of information and spreading the word about their initiative.

“We’re all full-time students so we’re not spending a ton of time promoting it,” Roll said. “The only money we put into it is to host the website.”

The platform currently functions as a charity: While the webinars are free to attend, the team encourages users to donate to the Boston Resiliency Fund and the CDC Foundation, two programs that are raising funds to help those affected by COVID-19.

In the future, Desyde hopes to branch out and host a panel that provides insight on taking a gap year — a decision many students are now considering given the fall semester’s uncertainty. Further, they plan to host webinars geared towards high school juniors who are narrowing down colleges to apply to. While previous sessions have been live, the team intends to make recorded sessions available to students as well.

The team also hopes to organize panels that feature students from multiple schools in order to help high schoolers who might be struggling to choose between them. Recently, Desyde hosted a combined webinar with panelists from both the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley.

“We felt that that was super important for people who haven’t had a chance to visit schools because of the whole pandemic,” Genzelev said.