Students Work with At-Risk Youth to Improve Educational Equity

A new grant awarded to the University by the State Farm Youth Advisory Board will support a service-learning program designed to improve educational equity and access to higher education for at-risk and marginalized youth.

“Youth in Marin County are sharply divided by income and differing socio-economic and academic opportunities,” said Julia Van der Ryn, director of Dominican’s service-learning program. “This grant will enable us to create and implement projects that will help transform youth attitudes and understanding, while addressing the need to increase access to higher education and enhance educational equity for at-risk youth in our community.”

Last spring, Dominican students conducted four focus groups with 27 local youth in order to gather qualitative data based on youth perceptions regarding their educational experience, the opportunities available to them in higher education, and their knowledge of what services are currently available to them in Marin County to support their educational success.

The focus groups showed that youth who have been labeled “at-risk” are further marginalized by being stereotyped with negative expectations, poor self-image, and the idea that it is all “up to them” whether they succeed or not in their career and educational goals. Many of these youth are not being reached by the systems in place to help them.  They remain unaware of existing resources, and do not seek help. 

Based on the results from the focus groups, Dominican initiated a tutoring program last fall to work one-on-one with students at the County Community School. The program was designed to help the youth pass the exit exam while building relationships with college students and gaining greater self-confidence.

Dominican now is developing a Youth on Campus dimension that will enable youth to visit the University and work one-on-one with Dominican students to locate and access available resources aimed at helping the youth continue their education.

The $95,495 grant will support a collaboration with Sonoma-based nonprofit Listening for a Change (LFAC) to develop oral history projects between youth and community members. Listening for a Change will train Dominican students in the use of oral history techniques in order to help at-risk youth come to know themselves, their families, and the community at large through their stories.  The youth, in turn, will be trained to initiate and accomplish the process of “history taking” with their peers.

“Taking oral histories allows all students to identify with people whose experiences, while different from their own, produce a familiar sense of sorrow and loss that allows them to establish a level of commonality,” Van der Ryn said. “This will give the youth a greater sense of self, which will motivate them to participate as engaged citizens in a community in which they can strive to be seen and heard as individuals and discard labels of 'at-risk' or 'troubled.'"

Dominican students initially will work with youth in the County Community School before involving other community partners.  Dominican has several community partnerships in place that focus on educational advocacy, policy change, and direct service to marginalized youth.

The project will benefit both the youth and the Dominican students, Van der Ryn said.

“About 40 percent of Dominican’s students came from minority backgrounds. Many of our students are the children of immigrants themselves or have struggled against a variety of challenges to arrive on our campus,” she said.

“Giving these college students a broad range of experiences and responsibilities while deepening their academic education is helps develop the practical and critical thinking skills they will need to face an increasingly complex world. Recognizing inequity and working against it, as part of their higher education, is crucial for developing a sense of civic responsibility in the next generation.”

The State Farm Youth Advisory Board is a diverse group of students ages 17 to 20 who play a leadership role in creating a $5 million-a-year State Farm funded initiative and in overseeing the awarding of grants to student-led service-learning projects State Farm believes that through service-learning, young people can have opportunities to make change in their communities while at the same time become better prepared for college, the workforce, and active community involvement.

Service-learning is a teaching method that incorporates service to the community with classroom learning. Dominican launched its service-learning program in 2004. Since then, more than 600 students have participated in courses with service-learning components.