On March 13, 2020, the coronavirus pandemic sent UT students home packing. The remainder of the spring semester would be spent online, distanced from their peers and professors and faced with a new, unexpected challenge: social isolation.

But Texas Engineers Aditi Merchant and Allen Zhou confronted this challenge head on. Alongside Zhou’s brother Anthony, a high school senior at the Texas Academy of Math and Science, they spent their extended spring break developing Big & Mini, a platform that connects youth (Minis) and senior citizens (Bigs) virtually to create mutually beneficial connections and combat loneliness.

What started as a Google Form sign-up sheet and a handful of participants has turned into weekly meetings between thousands of Bigs and Minis from all 50 states and more than 24 countries.

“We missed being in an environment where we were surrounded by other students, professors and different mentor figures,” said Merchant, a biomedical engineering sophomore. “We wanted to do our part to create something that would allow people from everywhere to continue to make a difference while combatting this issue of loneliness. Big & Mini was that solution.”

Portrait of Allen Zhou, Aditi Merchant and Anthony Zhou

Each week, Bigs and Minis log into the platform to meet and talk for an hour. The duos are carefully paired together to match people with common interests as well as differences. Afterall, the goal of the program is to introduce people who would not normally cross paths in everyday life.

“The coolest aspect is that we are connecting people across cultures and locations,” Merchant said. “We have one Big & Mini duo where the Big lives in Jordan and the Mini lives in Michigan. Getting to connect with someone from a completely different cultural background with completely different life experiences seems unique these days.”

While the Big & Mini creators have relied on their different skillsets to make the program happen, Zhou and Merchant noted that what they have learned in the Cockrell School has helped their success.

“This is definitely a product of the problem-solving skills we have learned in school,” said Zhou, an electrical and computer engineering sophomore. “Not only do we learn technical skills from our classes, but more broadly, we learn how to solve problems logically and coherently.”

Merchant added that their Texas Engineering professors mentored them along the way, sharing their own experiences of starting projects and businesses.

“Hearing about what they’ve done, how they made things work and the steps they took to get there helped us as we got started with Big & Mini,” she added.

Cockrell School and UT Austin faculty members also helped by connecting the team with organizations that serve older populations to build their group of participating Bigs. That outreach is how they were able to reach people like Leslie McMaster, an Austin-based Big, and pair her with her Mini, engineering student Sabah Jamal.

McMaster and Jamal look forward to meeting each week, but when asked about that first introduction…

“You mean how was our blind date?” McMaster joked.

“Leslie didn’t have her camera on the first two times and I didn’t know what to do. Turns out, she didn’t know she didn’t have it on,” Jamal laughed.

Portrait of Sabah Jamal and Leslie McMaster

The pair spends their time talking about everything from their college experiences and books and TV shows to conspiracy theories and architecture.

“It’s never the same thing twice,” Leslie said. “It might be sharing my daughter’s wedding photos or the birthday card Sabah made for her dad. It’s just random and for me, random is a good thing at the moment. I could use more random.”

Portrait of Leslie McMaster

Big & Mini was created because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but isolation and loneliness are not new problems. The team expects the platform to expand and continue to be useful long after the world returns to normalcy, whenever that may be.

Beyond working with the senior community, “we’re looking to partner with the people who need it the most, different organizations who work with groups of people who are generally feeling lonelier or more isolated and who might not have access to various resources or connections to mentor figures,” Merchant said.

They have already begun this expansion with their Friends and Mentors (FAM) Program, which facilitates conversations between FAM Family Members and FAM Volunteers in an effort to reduce at-home isolation for individuals with cognitive and/or physical disabilities.

There are many unknowns with how long our COVID-19 social isolation will linger. But one thing is for sure, Big & Mini will continue to be a space of community and connection.

“I’ve surprised myself by still being able to form a connection with someone despite the circumstances,” Jamal said.

Portrait of Sabah Jamal

“Even if you think you are different from someone, you can always find something to talk about and connect on.”

Sign up to be a Big or a Mini: bigandmini.org