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Michelle Kwan and Okash Haybe.

Wellstone High School senior Okash Haybe with U student Michelle Kwan, who is one of the 28 student History Day mentors across the University's Twin Cities, Duluth and Morris campuses.

History Day mentors help immigrant students succeed

U-sponsored program teaches young scholars valuable research skills

By Lori Janies

May 1, 2006

University of Minnesota sophomore Michelle Kwan wasn't sure she had what it takes to help Wellstone International High School students successfully prepare research projects for a nationally based history research competition known as History Day.

Wellstone High School is a Minneapolis school for new immigrants ages 17-21 and Kwan says she didn't know if she would be able to connect with the students.

"I was terrified," admits Kwan, 20, an undeclared major in the College of Liberal Arts. "Some of the kids were going to be older than me. There was a language barrier. It was hard to communicate."

But Kwan herself had participated in a History Day competition while in high school, so she already knew a thing or two about putting together a successful research project. And as the daughter of immigrants, she felt she might be able to relate to the unique problems Wellstone High School students faced.

"My parents emigrated from Hong Kong and came here without a college degree and had to deal with a language barrier and stereotypes," she said. "I know it's a big struggle."

So Kwan decided to give mentoring a try. The rest, as they say, is history.

This fall, Kwan became one of 28 student History Day mentors across the University's Twin Cities, Duluth and Morris campuses. Mentors earn a small stipend and two class credits and gain valuable experience working with and teaching inner city youth. The College of Liberal Arts' History Department has sponsored History Day in Minnesota since 1985.

The program is one of many outreach initiatives at the University to help improve primary- and secondary-school immigrant communities.

As of late last week, Kwan was about 250 hours into her 100-hour commitment to mentor the students at Wellstone. Over the course of a semester, Kwan has mentored about 20 students regularly. She's helped them with basic skills like how to write a topic sentence and advanced skills like how to seek out primary sources and write an annotated bibliography. She also introduced students to the resources available at Wilson Library and the Minnesota Historical Society Library and met with them regularly to work on their projects.

As a result of everybody's hard work, two student groups from Wellstone advanced from regional competition to compete in State History Day, held at the University April 30.

"That's a lot more than we even projected," Kwan said. "Of course, I hoped that they would all make it to state, but I really just wanted them to pick up the research skills."

Okash Haybe
Okash Haybe

Okash Haybe, a 19-year-old senior at Wellstone presented a multimedia presentation titled, "Thurgood Marshall: Taking a Stand Against Segregation," at the state competition.

Somalia-born, Kenya-raised Haybe emigrated to the U.S. from Kenya a mere nine months ago and jumped almost immediately into History Day preparations. He said Kwan played an important role in helping him learn necessary research skills and in feeling good about himself.

"Where I grew up in Kenya, I never did research," he said. "Michelle told me how to write an annotated bibliography and a process paper. She told me, 'Okash, I know you can do it. Don't give up.'"

Haybe plans to attend Minneapolis Community and Technical College next fall where he is interested in pursuing a career as either a family physician or a journalist.

While some of the other student mentors helped motivate their high school students to work on their projects by offering fast food meals as a reward, Kwan reported that her students were constantly trying to buy her food.

"I kept saying, 'But I have a budget!' They didn't feel like they needed the reward. With my students the reward was learning how to create a project, how to do research, how to summarize what you've learned and how teach it to someone else."

The history of History DayHistory Day is to students of history what a science fair is to students of science. Students in grades 6-12 compete at the regional, state and national level using research papers, documentaries, performances and tabletop exhibits all adhering to an annual theme. This year's theme is "Taking a Stand in History." Winners selected at the April 30 State History Day event will now advance to National History Day at the University of Maryland in June.

History Day began in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1974 as a local program. In 1980, the program expanded nationally as a result of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the University of Minnesota began sponsoring the event in 1985. This year's State History Day event was co-sponsored by the University and the Minnesota Historical Society.

"The principle reason why the two organizations cosponsor this is it provides a vehicle for them to connect with how history is being taught in the schools, said Tim Hoogland, History Day coordinator, affiliated professor with the University's History Department and Institutional Outreach Programs Coordinator for the Minnesota Historical Society.

"We have students coming into undergraduate courses at the U who say they feel they were under-prepared for what they were asked to do in college primarily because they were only given multiple choice assessments."

Hoogland also said initiatives like the History Day mentor program help further the U's ongoing goals to strengthen K-12 education throughout the state.

At least one public school teacher thinks the system is working.

In a letter to University President Bob Bruininks praising Michelle Kwan and the History Day mentor program, Wellstone teacher Carol Dallman wrote:

"Our graduates tell me that working on a History Day project prepared them for college more than any other high school work. However, I do not see how I could teach research without a university mentor like Michelle. She worked with students in class each week, and more important, met students at Wilson Library several times a week to guide them in their research.

"By the end of the project, students not only learned how to use the library, they knew their way around campus and felt comfortable there. I think that these History Day students already feel a strong connection to the University. This is so important for my students, who are the first in their family to go to college."

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