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As a professor in Northeastern Illinois University’s Department of Educational Inquiry and Curriculum Studies, Nicole Holland is passionate about the success of her students. But she knows firsthand that success in a university classroom doesn’t happen without plenty of preparation.
That’s why she co-founded a three-year research project aimed at providing college planning interventions for female students of color.
The project, titled Paving Postsecondary Pathways in Urban High Schools: Developing the School, College and Career Connections for Young Women of Color, is the result of a $158,000 grant from the Hymen Milgrom Supporting Organization, which funds the Successful Pathways from School to Work research initiative at the University of Chicago. The research project looks at developing students’ college knowledge early in their high school experiences, while requiring students to share that information with their families and apply it to college preparatory activities.
“These types of programs are important and they say that students matter,” said Holland, who will teach in Northeastern’s Master of Arts in Community and Teacher Leaders program that will launch in fall 2016. “People give lip service, saying, ‘You can do it. You will be fine,’ but they don’t provide the tangibles. Our job with this project is to provide the tangibles.”
The girls in the program receive assistance with financial aid applications, college visits, career inquiry opportunities and writing statements for college applications. They also create vision boards, prepare aspirational autobiographies and seek scholarship and grant applications that support their goals.
“For many communities with students of color or students who are first-generation, they often hear the cheerleading, but they don’t know how to make that go from cheerleading to the actual college preparation and enrollment, and that is a major objective of this project,” Holland said.
Some high schools do not start postsecondary education planning until the 12th grade, but Holland and research partner Raquel Farmer-Hinton, an associate professor in Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, felt an earlier, more intensive and focused approach would have a greater impact on the students’ college knowledge, preparation and choice.
The two researchers began working with sophomores in a Chicago Public Schools high school on the South Side of the city in November 2014 and will see the project through to their graduations in 2017. They hope that with consistent conversations, ongoing development of college knowledge and engagement with college preparatory activities, the students in their program will make college choices that are aligned with their academic choices and career ambitions.
The program, which fluctuates between 16 and 20 participants, takes place from 1:30-3:30 p.m. on Wednesdays when school lets out early for professional development opportunities for the school’s faculty and staff. Persuading students to stay later at school than they need to can be challenging, but Holland and Farmer-Hinton can be persuasive.
“They are teenagers. We get that they would rather go home and take advantage of having the rest of the school day to do whatever they would like,” Holland said. “We had one our students stop coming to the program and she said it was so nice to go home at 1:30. I told her to think about her postsecondary life and what that will mean to her. She came back the next week and stayed.”
Holland said there is a real need for a program such as this because students from traditionally underrepresented college-going populations often do not take the necessary steps during high school to prepare for and enter college either because they are not aware of them or because they lack the guidance and support needed to complete them. Only 45.5 percent of low-income high school graduates immediately enrolled in college in 2013, according to the American Council on Education. That number was down from 55.9 percent in 2008.
“Many of us don’t have a plan for our postsececondary path. We are figuring it out as we go along, and that deters us,” Holland said. “It prolongs that pathway and sometimes you feel like you are not getting ahead like others and you say, ‘I am not going to do it.’ Dr. Farmer-Hinton and I have been through it ... so we thought, ‘We’re women of color, so let’s talk to these young women and give them guidance and support about the process.’ ”
To celebrate their first-year accomplishments, the students were rewarded with a networking opportunity at a downtown Chicago restaurant where they were able to meet and talk with professionals in the fields they wanted to pursue. They also went to Illinois State University on a college visit, and later this year they are slated for another college trip with their sights set on an out-of-state university.
The students aren’t the only ones learning from this program. As a professor in the Daniel L. Goodwin College of Education, Holland is eager to incorporate the lessons of this research project into her own curriculum.
“Because of the work I do, I love that I can bring it to the classroom,” she said. “Having the job that I have allows me to think and develop this project and to also use the work on a daily basis.”
Despite that, Holland said there have been times when she has been concerned about whether the students understand the importance of the program. She got her answer when a group of independent interviewers came to the school to ask the girls what they were learning.
“The students were able to explain the mission of the program, and that was a bonus,” Holland said. “To me, that is important because they understand why we do it. They understand their responsibility, even if it is challenging to them, and they seem to understand why we have to keep pushing them further.”
It all connects to the bigger picture of enrolling and graduating from a college or university.
“We want to see these students get to college without paying a lot of money,” she said. “We want them to find a postsecondary option that is a good fit for them where they can be successful and, ultimately, for them to graduate from college and pursue their desired careers.”