“College prep” programs that stoke youth college aspirations and scholarship programs to make college affordable are great, but they're not enough. They leave out something important -- the young person herself!
As I've written about previously, laudable efforts to instill in youth the desire to go to college and the hard skills to qualify do help.
Unfortunately, there is a considerable amount of research to show that while aspirations for higher education have skyrocketed and schools are making headway on teaching marketable skills, many marginalized young people are still not ending up with degrees.
We at the Extension Center for Youth Development have a nuanced strategy that accounts for the multidimensional factors that youth from marginalized backgrounds face in their educational pursuits. We engage with youth intimately about what matters to them, how they see themselves now, what they want for their future and how they will act to achieve their aspirations.
Here are some of the ways we weave research around aspirations, future orientation, and social inequalities into the 4-H campus immersion program design.
Engage youth in activities that are honest about the socio-cultural, economic and political contexts they will have to navigate
Scholarships might address a financial barrier, but money is only one of the the obstacles. Research suggests that youth need to understand the broader range of barriers and opportunities they face. At campus immersion, young people engage in a series of activities that aim to accomplish this. For instance, building an identity wheel helped youth assert who they are now and who they want to become, while also prompting a discussion about how their pathway to higher education might be impacted by their identities :
“Because they [females] are seen as lesser by some people, but then we can do really great things and be strong.” -- program participantThis prompted a discussion among girls and boys about gendered norms and expectations placed upon them. Subsequent activities allowed for youth to strategize ways to navigate such complex contexts and set goals specific to their social situations.
Provide opportunities to experience student life
A key reason why young people do not pursue higher education, or why they depart soon after enrolling is that they don't feel they belong there. In our program evaluation, youth reported much less on the content they learned and more on how they had the opportunity to “be” a college student and interact with faculty and students. One mother relayed that her daughter could hardly believe she was worthy of such time and attention from people she considered so esteemed. This experience helped that young woman learn her worth.
Experiencing campus life -- the dorms, the cafeteria, bowling -- helped them imagine themselves as college students. They began to understand that attending college is not a pipe dream; it is where they belong.
“I felt that I could live the life of a college students [sic]. We all know we wanted to go to college. When we finally set foot on campus, we actually had an idea of what college students do.” -- program participantThere is still much to be learned about how young people construct and act on their aspirations for the future, but we do know that aspiration is not enough. Programs designed to foster critical, yet optimistic future mindedness are critical to helping them succeed.
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