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How the UW is helping middle and high school students pursue a college degree

Studies have demonstrated that higher education paves the way for career success and financial independence. But research also shows that realizing the dream of a college degree can be a challenge, especially for students of color, low-income students and students who are the first in their family to attend college.

Story by: Jackson Holtz // Video by: Kiyomi Taguchi // Photos by: Raymond Smith and Jovelle Tamayo

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in early August, 45 teenagers from South King County gathered in Oak Hall to show off their new knowledge: how to harness sunshine to help fuel the University of Washington’s energy needs.

They’d just spent an intensive four days learning how to generate electricity without burning fossil fuels. As a capstone project, they had created nearly a dozen proposals for utilizing solar power on campus, including solar-powered scooters, sun-powered greenhouses, and energy-absorbing blinds for dorm windows.

The students — incoming high school sophomores and juniors — lived in the UW residence halls and took classes on campus, part of a summer camp the UW runs to inspire kids to get excited about science, and to dream about attaining a college degree.

It’s called Gaining Early Awareness & Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP Achievers, and it’s one of the many college-access programs the UW’s Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity manages in Washington state.

“I feel like I could see a glimpse of my future,” said Munira Sharif, 16, a junior at Kent-Meridian High School, who created one of the solar power presentations. “I just think it’s better for everybody to have an experience of college and the social setting. And also, if you want a career in the future, if you have a degree, that’s a good thing.”

Sharif is right.

Studies have demonstrated — again and again — that higher education paves the way for career success and financial independence. But research also shows that realizing the dream of a college degree can be a challenge, especially for students of color, low-income students and students who are the first in their family to attend college.

Data for the past year shows that about 48% of Washington’s K-12 population are low income; and just over 50% are students of color, according to the Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction. At the UW, about 1 in 3 undergrads identifies as a first-generation college student.

That’s why OMA&D helps young people across Washington prepare for college, said Rickey Hall, university diversity officer and vice president for OMA&D. The UW and many other large universities target K-12 students to get them thinking early about how to best position themselves if they want to attend college. Each year, the UW reaches about 25,000 students in 85 school districts, 179 schools and 19 two-year colleges, aiming to decrease the opportunity gap and create more pathways to higher education.

“It’s helping people see that they can be in places like the UW,” Hall said.

Still, Hall said, the programs aren’t about just getting students into the UW; they’re about getting students to post-secondary education.

“It’s a bigger, global outcome, more about the public good,” he said.

A history of supporting BIPOC, low-income and first-generation college students

The Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity was born in 1968 out of student activism. Black students and other marginalized students on campus demanded better representation among the faculty, staff and student body. The UW was among the first universities in the country to establish an office to serve these student needs.

Part of that original vision, Hall said, was working with communities statewide to put middle schoolers on a path toward higher education. Research underscored the need for students at that age to develop specific study habits and skills for them to be successful at a top-tier school like the UW.

And, more than just acquiring academic skills, Hall said that these students and their families were more likely to succeed when resources were provided to orient everyone involved in a student’s success toward the four-year degree goal.

“We need to support students and families from these communities who may not know the process, or know how to navigate getting into a university, especially one like the UW,” said Patricia Loera, UW’s associate vice president for College Access, with oversight of a suite of programs designed to help young people succeed in pursuing higher education. OMA&D also helps with student success programs and ensures the UW is doing all it can to uplift and support students, faculty and staff from historically marginalized communities.

Photos above: Students participate in various GEAR UP camps, including on the Olympic Peninsula, designed to inspire students to pursue college. Photos by  Jovelle Tamayo

At the beginning, the UW’s College Access efforts were aimed at creating a pathway for students to be competitive to get into the UW, but as opportunities came for additional funding, officials expanded the programs’ goals to reach all Washingtonians interested in going to college.

“Our primary goal really is to support students, period, and helping them pursue a post-secondary education, a college education, wherever that might be,” Loera said.

Tracking success with data

Today, the UW receives more than $77 million from the federal government, plus state funds, for outreach that begins with sixth-grade students. There are eight programs that range from providing summer education and leadership academies, like GEAR UP, to college visits and year-round curriculum designed to inspire students to pursue college.

The UW works with rural, urban and suburban communities to help “create that dream about going to college,” Loera said.

The UW collects reams of data to track the impact of the programs and see how many of these students make it through to graduation, among other success measures.

“We hold ourselves accountable by tracking those students,” she said.

Last year in GEAR UP, which works with students in the Kent, Auburn, Renton and Tukwila school districts, more ninth graders completed Algebra I than in previous years, and the number of families familiar with financial aid options increased, Loera said.

At the same time, however, science and math proficiency slipped in this cohort, the data showed.

“This past year, with the pandemic and the schools in King County closing or partially servicing students in a hybrid manner, serving the students was a challenge,” Loera said.

Even potentially discouraging information still helps UW officials retool the college access programs to achieve the best outcomes.

Upward Bound, UW’s oldest college access program, works with 123 students at Seattle’s Cleveland, Franklin and Chief Sealth high schools who are low-income or the first in their family to attend college.

In this group, success was measured by increasing students’ GPAs, reading, language arts and math skills, and helping to steer the students toward graduation. More than half of the participants went on to pursue a post-secondary education.

Last year, there were 48 Upward Bound high school seniors, 37 of whom applied to the UW. Of those, 30 students were accepted, and all of them started classes at the UW this fall.

“Our primary goal really is to support students, period, and helping them pursue a post-secondary education, a college education, wherever that might be.”

Patricia LoeraUW associate vice president for College Access

Another program, the Educational Talent Search, serves the Mount Adams, Toppenish and Wapato school districts in the Yakima Valley. Participating middle and high school students qualify if they’re low-income, first generation or BIPOC. They receive guidance from program counselors on how to navigate post-secondary education, including filling out applications and qualifying for financial aid.

Charlene Luna, then a senior at Wapato High School, told The Yakima Herald last fall that the support was invaluable.

“Because I’m a first-generation student, I feel like I don’t have someone to go to when I need advice or confirmation on something (or) someone to look over my stuff,” Luna told the paper. “And they were there.”

In Spokane, the UW teamed its Washington Math Engineering and Science Achievement program with BASE 11, a project that builds a pipeline of entrepreneurs in STEM fields among students of color and other historically marginalized communities.

Sophomores from North Central High School participated in a national BASE 11 contest to draft business proposals showcasing their creativity and skills. Nova Sportsman’s project, “Menstruation Station” — an idea to provide increased access to women’s health products — won the contest.

The 15-year-old won $1,750 and a fully paid trip to New York City and Washington, D.C., to meet with Fortune 500 executives and visit The White House where she shared her idea with aides to Vice President Kamala Harris.

Now, Sportsman said she plans to continue her studies and advocacy, searching for solutions to unnoticed problems and speaking up for people without a voice to advocate for themselves. She hopes to attend the UW or The Evergreen State College to become a field marine biologist.

Hope for the future

“These folks, they really are going to change the world,” UW’s Hall said. “They are the ones that have the great ideas, and it’s led to the innovation that we see. And sometimes, given all the things going on in the world, it can seem rather bleak, but when you’re in space with young people and seeing what they’re doing, it’s just a lot of hope.”

Alfred’Ryan Esquivel Gonzalez, 16, likes sports, entrepreneurship and academics. He is thinking about becoming an architect.

He found out about GEAR UP in eighth grade. After taking a class on computer coding, he became interested in learning more. When he found out he could spend a week at the UW, he jumped at the opportunity.

The Foster High School sophomore wants to find the right fit for college. He’s looking for an urban setting that’s not too far from his family. After spending a few days at the UW, he’s already dreaming of becoming a Husky.

While his older sister has taken college courses, Gonzalez would be the first in his family to attend a big school like the UW.

“He’s a star,” said Jenaro Bincent Garcia, Gonzalez’s stepdad. Along with Gonzalez’s sisters and mom, Garcia came to UW this warm summer day with his family to celebrate his son’s achievement. “He’s going to great places.”

Even if he doesn’t decide to attend the UW, Gonzalez’s parents said they want the best for him and the rest of the family. Reflecting on the teenager’s week on a big college campus, learning science, meeting other kids with college aspirations and having fun, they said they were optimistic for the future.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for him,” Garcia said.

See a related story from the Yakima Herald.