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Local Teens Thrive in VCUEI Summer ProgramsVassar College Urban Education Initiative Helps Prepare Poughkeepsie High School Students for Upcoming Academic Challenges

Summer 2020 has presented no end of challenges: a global pandemic; a long overdue reckoning with systemic racism; and the ongoing climate crisis. Yet two July programs run by the Vassar College Urban Education Initiative (VCUEI) brought some welcome rays of hope—not by serving as a distraction from weighty problems but by supporting local teens as they delved right into them.

In the Exploring College program, which has existed for a decade, 15 highly motivated Poughkeepsie High School students spent two weeks taking a college-level course on climate change while learning about the college application process. The challenge this year for Exploring College was to convert a program based upon a two-week residential model into an online program. In Getting Ready for High School, a new two-week program, 16 recently graduated middle schoolers examined the country’s history of racial struggle while learning how to best prepare themselves for their upcoming entry as first-year students at Poughkeepsie High School.

Rising Poughkeepsie High School junior Sami Kahn was one of 15 local teens who participated in the Exploring College program. For his final project, he proposed new ways of incentivizing recycling.Photo: Yousra Kahn

“This particular summer it was important to hold these programs because so many things were cancelled,” said VCUEI Executive director John Bradley. “To challenge yourself academically and learn about the world around you and your place in it and what you can do to change it is really important.” Another key goal, Bradley said, was to connect these students with Vassar and community mentors whom they can contact throughout the upcoming school year. “We wanted to emphasize their importance to us and our commitment to them and to the Poughkeepsie school system because it’s been difficult for everyone to be online,” he said.

A page from the nature journal of Julia Quezada, a rising junior at Poughkeepsie High School. Exploring College students used the iNaturalist app to identify plants in their community.

All sessions for both programs were held virtually, though students often received assignments that required getting out into the community. In Exploring College, a typical day included a morning lecture and discussion on climate change with Professor of Sociology Pinar Batur, Vassar Ford Scholars Robin Bleicher ’23 and Martin Burstein ’23, and various guest speakers; afternoon independent fieldwork directed by Jennifer Rubbo and Lauren Bell from Vassar’s Environmental Cooperative; and college preparation workshops taught by Program Manager Kelly Bernatzky ’19 and Summer Intern Iris Thaoxaochay ’23.

Iris Thaoxaochay ’23Photo: Courtesy of the subject

Thaoxaochay, a future high school teacher from Las Vegas, said she was inspired to work in this program based upon her own experiences in high school. “We didn’t have a good educational system a lot of the time,” she said, “but I was able to get myself to Vassar and that is something that I’m very proud about and so I’ve always been really passionate about education. I think it just helps for kids to have a support system, and that’s really lacking in the communities that I’ve been in.”

Sami Kahn, a rising junior at Poughkeepsie High School, said he appreciated the chance to explore an interesting topic more deeply than high school typically allows. “If we do learn about something like climate change, it would probably be for one or two days,” he said. “I think this program is cool because we spent two weeks trying to learn, read new articles, watch videos, do projects, and even cook so we know that it doesn’t take a lot of money to make changes.”

Briceida Reyes-Martinez, a rising senior, said the program left her feeling better prepared academically. “It was really good experience for college, and helped me become more comfortable in asking questions,” she said, adding that she would remember “the importance to speak up and voice our opinions, which is something that Professor Batur was really vocal about.”

Professor of Sociology Pinar BaturPhoto: Noah W. Fowler ’09

“I thought it was our duty as citizens to teach about climate change because I think it is a very important way to understand the future and an important way to understand inequalities that exist in our society,” Batur said. “Climate change is laden with racism, classism, and oppression against the LGBTQ community.” Batur invited scientists among the Vassar faculty to discuss climate change through the lens of their particular disciplines. “I wanted to show students how important it is to listen to scientists,” she said, and maybe inspire a few to become scientists themselves.

At the end of the two-week intensive, the students each presented two final projects: a personal reflection on climate change and a carefully researched policy letter to local government officials detailing new ideas for protecting Poughkeepsie’s environment. These included creating a greener transportation system, reusing abandoned buildings, and incentivizing recycling.

“Young people are amazing—give them tools and they can do everything,” Batur said. “Optimism is a weapon against oppression!”

The theme of optimism in dark times was echoed by President Elizabeth Bradley in her remarks to the students at their concluding celebration on Zoom. “When I think of the root skills to sustaining in a world that at times feels like it’s completely fragmented and falling apart—I think it takes two critical traits,” She said. “One is hope, the feeling that it’s going to get better. The other is empathy. You’ve built our hope and our resilience and our empathy as well—just knowing you, and knowing where you’re going to take all this work.”

As Exploring College ended, Getting Ready for High School was still going strong. One morning, Teacher in Residence Paul Donnelly, of the Poughkeepsie School District, and Program Manager Sashawna Isaacs ’23 could be found teaching a lesson on how the failures of the Reconstruction period echo today. It was a lot to absorb on a steamy July day, but the students stayed with it.

At one point, Isaacs asked the class if they were comfortable with the level of difficulty. “Sometimes I’m struggling in social studies, so this could help me,” a student replied.

Donnelly stopped frequently to define his terms: “economy,” “deity,” the concept of “race.”

“We may look different, but biologically speaking, we’re not different,” said Donnelly. “I want to make sure you understand that. Race is used to connect physical characteristics to internal characteristics in order to justify oppression.”

In the afternoon, Isaacs and Thaoxaochay held a workshop on stress management. Students spent the first few minutes writing down thoughts about stress, which a few volunteered to share.

“Something that stresses me out is I tend to overthink things a lot,” said one student. “I put a lot of stuff on my plate. I start thinking back over it, and that’s something that makes me stressed out and I don’t really know how to deal with it.”

Sashawna Isaacs ’23Photo: Courtesy of the subject

“I am an overthinker as well, so I really relate to you on that one,” Isaacs replied, noting that they would ask their guest speaker, school counselor Frankie Perez, for some advice. When he came online, Perez discussed the concept of mindfulness and led the group in some deep breathing exercises.

“It feels good!” declared a student. “That’s what I’m missing.”

After the workshop, Isaacs—herself a graduate of Poughkeepsie High School and an Exploring College alum—said she appreciates how VCUEI programs “give kids hope and help them understand that they’re capable of what they want—even if that’s not college—that they have opportunities past being a statistic.” She also said she appreciates the opportunity to give back to her own community. “It hits close to home for me,” Isaacs said. “Exploring College helped me pick Vassar and know Vassar was the place for me and so I just have a lot of appreciation and love for the Urban Education Initiative.”

The Exploring College and Getting Ready for High School programs were funded by the Mindich VCUEI Operating Fund and the Gordon Fund for Academic Enrichment.