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Keith Mayes (standing) with students Tracy Blackmon and Naima Bashir.

Creating change (left to right): Tracy Blackmon, Keith Mayes, and Naima Bashir

The next generation of U students

CLA's new K-12 outreach office is encouraging Minnesota's youngest citizens to think big

By Emily Sohn

August 10, 2007; updated August 16

As an African-American kid growing up in a working class household in Houston, Tracy Blackmon never got the sense that college was in her future. She lived with her grandmother, who taught her to cook and clean so that she could snag a husband. Even at school, guidance counselors inadvertently discouraged attempts to break out of a powerful socioeconomic rut--college was never on the tips of their tongues.

"There was a subtle knowing that if you lived in the neighborhood where I'm from, you were maybe not going to college," says Blackmon, now a 23-year-old senior at the U's College of Liberal Arts (CLA).

That same discouraging message is regularly delivered to low-income kids of color throughout the country. But through student-driven documentaries, summer research programs, campus visits, and more, it's a message that CLA is working hard to change.

"If you reach students while they're young, there is evidence that they're more likely to go to college, have better grades, less absenteeism, and fewer behavioral issues," says Anise McDowell, who became CLA's first K-12 outreach coordinator last August.

With that in mind, members of the CLA community are increasingly reaching out to communities in Minnesota that are traditionally underrepresented in college classrooms. Directing their messages to students as young as five, they are replacing discouraging messages with a far more positive one: black or white, rich or poor, everyone deserves an education.

Outreach efforts aren't new to CLA. For years, professors and departments have been visiting primary and secondary school classrooms and bringing kids to campus. But until now, there was no central clearinghouse to organize those efforts. And ambitious projects may have been shelved in favor of smaller scale efforts.

Smoothing the way

A major goal of outreach efforts is to demystify the process of preparing for and attending college. Despite the lack of outreach in her community, Blackmon made it to the University after earning an associate degree from a community college in Houston. The journalism major, who tutors kids in Minneapolis schools, wants the next generation to know what she wished she knew at their age.

With that goal in mind, Blackmon is working on a documentary with classmate Naima Bashir that will film students of color talking about how high school prepared them for college, why they came to the U, and what campus life is like. The film will serve as a recruiting tool for minority high school students. Clips from its final version will appear on the African American Registry Web site, an extensive portal for African American history.

Keith Mayes, assistant professor in the Department of African American and African Studies, is overseeing the project. Mayes grew up in Harlem and didn't know anything about college until his senior year in high school. "We have a tendency to forget students on the margins," Mayes says. "Only through luck do they come upon someone they can be inspired by. Our job as an ethnic studies department is to create inspiration for students about coming to college."

Among other issues, the documentary project, called Thinking 'Bout? Being About It, will consider the complexities of family relationships for first-generation college kids, Blackmon says. In her own case, she notes, her family started noticing with some dismay that she doesn't sound like she's from Texas anymore. "It's something a lot of us first-generation college students deal with," she says. "After a certain point, your friends and family don't understand you."

Engaging students in research

Alongside such informal, student-driven projects, other outreach programs are taking a more traditional route--designed by professors for students and administered by the K-12 outreach office. Psychology professor Angus MacDonald III was walking across the knoll after a department meeting last November when he came up with an idea for a summer program that would increase diversity among applicants, boost funding for graduate student research projects, and reach out to students in the community.

With input and encouragement from McDowell and CLA Dean Steven Rosenstone, the idea evolved into a program called "a href="">VIRTEx (Vertically-Integrated Research Experience), which debuted in pilot form this summer. Three teams of students, consisting of a graduate student, an undergraduate student, and a motivated high school student, are collaborating on an original research project over the course of the summer. The high schoolers earn $1,250 for eight weeks of part-time work, giving them a way to gain research experience without having to get summer jobs.

"This is the kind of thing I would have eaten up in high school," says MacDonald, who graduated from Minneapolis South High in 1986. CLA hopes to fund dozens of similar opportunities in summers to come.

"We have a tendency to forget students on the margins," says U professor Mayes. "Only through luck do they come upon someone they can be inspired by."

Paying it forward

Other CLA programs, meanwhile, are already paying dividends.

Last April, the "CLA Experience" gave tenth graders from Patrick Henry High School in North Minneapolis a taste of college life. Students enrolled online and spent a day attending lectures on campus. The McGuire Academic Program helps to turn such students into University graduates, offering a next step for high school students involved in community programs like LearningWorks and Admission Possible. Nonprofit organizations like Achieve!Minneapolis and AVID in St. Paul are also part of the mix of CLA-community partnerships for access and sucess.

When CLA junior Douachee Lee was in high school at Patrick Henry, Admissions Possible paired her with a U student who helped her study for the ACT and apply for admission and financial aid. Through the program, which is geared toward kids from low-income families, Lee also visited campus a few times. A visit with the Hmong Minnesota Student Association made her feel even more at home.

"During my first year, I felt really comfortable going to classes and walking around campus," Lee says. "I don't think I ever got lost." These days, Lee coaches students and visits high schools, helping the next generation of U students find their way, too.