As the call intensifies for stronger polices and practices to improve diversity and inclusion within the nation’s higher-education sector, the University of Arizona‘s Project SOAR program is responding.
Project SOAR (Student Outreach for Access & Resiliency), established 10 years ago, regularly involves more than 100 undergraduate students in the examination of college access and equity issues, training them to serve as mentors to middle school students.
The project, a model-based program for engaging college and middle school students, is uniquely positioned to help improve access for underrepresented student groups, while training others to be both knowledgeable and sensitive to their particular needs, said Mary Irwin, director of Project SOAR, housed within the UA College of Education.
“We are thinking about the trajectory of low-income students in underresourced schools, with the goal of college access in mind,” said Irwin, also an assistant professor of practice for the UA Center for the Study of Higher Education.
For the next academic year, the program will partner with the UA’s Office of Early Academic Outreach and Nolan L. Cabrera, associate professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education. Cabrera was called in May to serve on a committee consulting the White House on how to effectively sustain and ensure the academic success of those involved with My Brother’s Keeper, a nationwide initiative launched by President Barack Obama in 2014 to actively address opportunity gaps face by young men of color.
The new partnership with Early Academic Outreach and Cabrera will enable Project SOAR, which includes students regardless of their academic program, to introduce concepts associated to race, discrimination and racism, while expanding mentoring support for middle school males.
The program also will offer a My Brother’s Keeper section in the Sunnyside Unified School District with financial support from the UA’s Student Services Fee.
A part of the UA service-learning project already has received national attention, including White House recognition for addressing the needs of underserved student populations.
UA alumna Amanda Tachine, co-founder of a partner program for American Indian students, Native SOAR, was honored in September 2015 by the Obama administration. Tachine, now at Arizona State University, co-founded the program in 2005 with Jenny Lee, a professor in the UA Center for the Study of Higher Education.
Cabrera, nationally known for his research on the social and academic challenges young males experience and also the experiences of racial minority college students, will help facilitate discussions and training for UA students involved in the program.
“The students are very well intentioned, and want to give back through mentoring programs, but we are trying to help them to think about racism more systematically,” said Cabrera, who will collaborate this fall with a number of other campus units and organizations.
While engaged, UA undergraduates will enroll in a higher-education course (HED 350 during the fall, HED 397B during the spring) in which they will learn about the college-going process and issues related to access and equity. Undergraduates also will offer mentoring support, under the guidance of Irwin and several UA graduate students, to middle school children. Over the course of the year, students also address issues related to conflict resolution and self-esteem.
Adrian Franco spent three semesters with Project SOAR before graduating in May with a physiology degree. A first-generation student, Franco said he experienced academic and financial challenges in the pursuit of his degree. As an undergraduate, he had been looking for a way to help Tucson youth and came upon Project SOAR.
“I hope my experiences and planned activities have assisted my mentees to gain insight on the challenges of reaching higher education,” said Franco, who mentored eight students at Roskruge Middle School and four students in Safford Middle School.
Helping them understand their potential was crucial, he said.
“I tell younger scholars that there is a large misconception that higher education is only for those coming from rich, well-endowed backgrounds. I realize there are many factors that can sway the intellectual functioning and self-identity of these kids,” he said, noting socioeconomic disadvantages and stereotyping of those with lesser economic means.
“Despite all of these barriers, I would tell kids, ‘There is no excuse for not trying, because all of you have something that you are good at. It is important for you to find out what those innate talents are. Higher education will help brings those talents into light. Just don’t be afraid (no tengan miedo!), and believe in yourselves.'”
Kethia Kong, who was involved with Project SOAR for multiple semesters, was drawn to the program because of its work with middle school students.
“I’ve found the experience to be incredibly rewarding. I formed a close connection with my mentees and I felt like I made a difference in their lives,” said Kong, a May graduate who earned degrees in philosophy and journalism and aspires to work in administration. “This experience helped me with my long-term professional goal because I learned a lot about problems public schools face and how the educational system works.”
Cabrera sees his research, consulting work with the Obama administration and forthcoming work with Project SOAR as sharing an important link: Like others, he is personally and professionally invested in improving campus conditions to ensure that underrepresented and underresourced populations are able to be successful, socially and academically.
Both Irwin and Cabrera say students often need more immersive training in how to engage with people of different backgrounds and experiences. They also need training in understanding why and how racism and other forms of discrimination exist.
“Some conceive of racism as the Klan and neo-Nazis having hatred for people of color, and of being very individualized — where you have the bad person who is bad, and the good person over there,” Cabrera said. “We want to break down that dichotomy. If we are being really honest with ourselves, we are all harboring different forms of racial bias, but are not all bad people. But that does make us people in a system that supports a racist enterprise.”
Making such a distinction is especially important when working with low-income students of color, he said.