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We can prepare youth for college, but not in the way you think

By Joanna Tzenis

“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 participant
This 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 participant
There 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.

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor

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  1. Joanna,

    Thank you so much for writing about this topic. I related to it as both a past student who would have been considered marginalized and as a youth worker who has coordinated college experiences for young people. I can remember in my undergrad how foreign college felt to me. I had never been brought to visit colleges or had any conversations with family or friends regarding what I wanted to do after high school and what my path might look like to get there. I was one of the rare few who was the first in my family to earn a bachelor's degree by a combination of luck and personal motivation. However, attending college was difficult. I didn't have adequate study skills, time management, financial literacy, and other essential skills. I also dealt with a lot of personal issues that I had a hard time coping with as I was trying to complete each semester. To add to all of this, I was a minority student and I learned I needed a space to visit with other people like me.
    As a youth worker, I think it's important to engage youth in conversation about their talents, skills and interests in order to guide them toward what professions they might want to pursue. I also try not to acknowledge the many benefits of college, but point out that some professions may entail some other types of education. For example, an American Indian person who wishes to become a fluent speaker in their native language may need to spend a few years living with and learning from elders. A person interested in the arts may attend an alternative type of school or travel to study different genres of art.
    I appreciate that the University of Minnesota Extension 4-H Campus Immersion program that you referenced takes youth through activities that get them thinking and talking more deeply about who they are and what their future could look like. Additionally, allowing them to experience college is equally important as it takes away some of the fears and apprehensions they may have around the unknown or unfamiliar. Building that awareness and exposure helps them to feel like they can do this and that they belong.

    1. Sorry about the typo, I meant to say "I try to acknowledge the many benefits of college, but also point out that some professions may entails some other types of education."

  2. Thank you for your remarkable insight, Kyra. You prompt me to think more deeply about how we can better connect to youths' cultural values and allow those values guide their pathway to higher education.

  3. Well said! I like to think that preparing youth for their futures is about showing them/helping them experience the details of road maps toward their interests and values - be it higher education, vocational education or work. It's not just a broad tour of what they aspire to and what they might do; it needs to be a detailed map with guideposts - including people along the way who can help youth think through decisions, next steps, and alternatives.
    When I was a first generation college student, I didn't have a detailed map, and I often felt (as I'm sure many youth do) that I was forging a path that I didn't really know; hoping for the best. But there were many people along the way who introduced me to ideas and options, and helped me to think through them. And I generally didn't have to deal with as many barriers (including heavy financial burden, family obligations, discrimination, etc.) as many young people face. We need to ensure that these needs and issues are also addressed.

  4. Thanks for the article, Joanna. I like your emphasis on the young person--a reminder that helping them carve a pathway is about them making decisions about what they want to learn more about, what they want to get better at, and what they want their contribution to the world to be. And I agree with Kyra--it's important as we talk with youth about future and learning that we help steer them towards all and any opportunities that can help teach them the knowledge and skills that will get them to where they want to go. Thanks for starting the discussion!


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