TikTok has rapidly increased in popularity since 2019 — especially during COVID-19 lockdowns. Just like many other people, Ben Straus, a senior majoring in Biomedical Engineering, saw the app as a place to watch and make funny videos.
Straus rapidly gained 125,000 TikTok followers in only one month with a simple goal in mind: to use his personal experience to help students on TikTok explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in college and beyond.
Straus has always had a passion for mentoring, as he was once a high schooler who had very little idea what engineering was. Looking back at those times and comparing them to what he knows now, Straus was sure that his journey would benefit students in a similar position.
On Jan. 31, Straus made a short video asking if users were interested in STEM homework help. After a single night, the video gained over 100,000 views, and his TikTok account gained over 3,000 followers.
Straus was onto something; there was a clear need for mentorship within the TikTok community. He found that when hundreds and thousands of students seeking college and life advice cross paths with someone eager to help, sparks fly.
“Initially, there was a bit of shock at the response. Then came good feelings that people are getting help,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
With the amount of interest Straus gained, he started making content right away. Now he answers questions about engineering, college life and job prospects both by making short videos and by holding “TikTok office hours” live every Monday night.
“I love answering these questions because they are questions I had exactly four years ago as a senior in high school,” Straus explained.
Straus also shares study guides from STEM classes according to students’ requests, such as Calculus, Differential Equations and Linear Algebra.
Although Straus was able to answer specific questions on TikTok, he found that many students needed more help than short 60-second videos. Followers specifically requested a Discord server, an instant-messaging platform for communities, to get help in real-time.
After one week, Straus created a Discord for students to help each other on specific subjects or school in general, and the number of students soon exceeded 10,000. Since then, Straus has been helping to answer questions alongside other “verified helpers,” who are also students themselves.
The Discord has multiple channels, categorized by four main STEM subjects: math, science, engineering and programming. In each category, smaller channels covering specific topics can be found.
Each channel has private tutoring rooms and group study rooms, designed to cater to different learning styles. Students and helpers can pick between voice conversations and text messages.
As Straus’ influence grows, followers comment to let him know how much they appreciate his work.
“You are a very kind person to make this. I’m passing my classes because of the discord server you made,” one student on Discord wrote Straus.
Despite the overwhelming number of direct messages, comments and Discord messages Straus receives every day, he still tries to respond to each student and provide them with the proper help they need.
On top of Straus’ coursework and extracurricular activities at Hopkins, he has successfully expanded his platforms to reach and support hundreds of thousands of students within a short span of one month. Right now, with over 200,000 followers on TikTok and 23,000 members on Discord, Straus can reach and support students all around the country at all education levels. His followers range from elementary school up to graduate school with the majority being in middle and high school.
The good news is that Straus’ TikTok mentorship journey is here to stay. Through this wonderful experience of helping others, Straus’ own life has been enriched as well.
Straus explained that the plan moving forward is to continue his current work on TikTok and Discord and to begin private mentoring, in addition to his full-time job as a systems engineer after graduation this May.
“Tutoring has always been — and will always be — one of those activities that just feeds my soul and makes me feel great,” Straus said.