The ‘Rite’ InterveneLane Community College program helps African American students connect to their heritage, community and to collegeBy Chris CunninghamEUGENE, Ore.Given MTV’s powerful influence in shaping self-image, the value of helping African American youth develop a deep understanding of their roots can’t be overemphasized, says Greg Evans, coordinator of Lane Community College’s African American Rites of Passage Summer Academy in Eugene, Ore.“They are desperately in search of an identity,” Evans says. “These students don’t have a frame of reference to build a positive self-image.”The mission of the Rites of Passage Summer Academy for African Americans is to help Black teens establish strong identities and make enduring connections — to heritage, community and to college — in a predominately White environment. The program also is an integral component of Lane’s recruitment and retention strategy for students of color.“This experience is a way to connect these students with their heritage, explore higher education, and network with the community and each other,” Evans says. It’s also a way to intervene in the lives of Black teens who might be at risk of dropping out of school, using drugs or engaging in criminal activity, program instructors say.Rites of Passage, a four-week session in July and August on Lane’s campus, is built on the premise that helping minority students develop positive values and beliefs will increase their opportunities for success. With the help of self-development exercises, literary arts, history classes and career planning workshops, the instructors hope that the students leave with a better sense of their rich heritage and culture and feel capable of earning college degrees and building satisfying lives and careers.Evans launched the program in 1996. Since then, 115 young African American students have successfully completed the program. Last year, Evans helped introduce the Asian, Asian American Rites of Passage Summer Academy. And this summer, the academy is offering Umista Native American and Puertas Abiertas (Latino) programs, an expansion that reflects overwhelming support from the board of education, local schools, parents and the community, despite a year of drastic budget cuts on campus.Bob Ackerman, chairman of the Lane Community College Board of Education in Eugene, says the Rites of Passage program was “on the chopping block” a year ago. When the motion to cut the program went before the budget committee, Ackerman read the college’s diversity statement to the committee members and suggested that all diversity efforts at the college would be hypocritical if the Rites of Passage program was eliminated. He had heard enough student testimony to understand this intervention program was offered early enough so that “some young lives have been turned around” as a result of participating in the program. At what age do you begin to save kids from an identity crisis, he asked. The program was saved, and the budget for the new Asian, Asian American program also was approved.‘You belong here’Studies of ethnic history and cultural traditions frame each program’s curricula so that each is distinctive in its own right. Yet the students in all four academies mingle socially, attend classes together, and participate in a variety of multicultural events. This summer, 25 students ages 12 to 18 will participate in the four programs and will receive high school credit for their involvement.Programs such as Rites of Passage, often referred to as intervention programs, may be even more important in predominantly White communities such as Eugene and neighboring Springfield, which together have a combined population of about 170,000. The Ku Klux Klan maintained a strong presence in the area’s history for decades, and few Blacks settled here.Even today, opportunities to connect with other African Americans are few. Eugene 4J School District’s African American population is 2.65 percent of total enrollment in grades K-12, and the nearby Springfield School District has an African American population of 1.5 percent. At Lane Community College, which serves all of Lane County, just 1.4 percent of the for-credit student population identifies themselves as African American. Whereas nationally, African Americans comprise approximately 11.1 percent of community college students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges’ “National Profile of Community Colleges: Trends & Statistics.”Today, one-third of all colleges and universities have implemented early intervention programs to increase access to higher education for disadvantaged and minority precollegiate youth, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Successful intervention programs, which range from the federally sponsored Upward Bound program to community-based programs such as Rites of Passage, validate the students’ presence on a college campus and send the message that “you belong here,” according to a 2001 report issued by NCES. The most effective early intervention programs are capable of doubling the number of minority students who attend college, the report indicates. Evans says he believes Lane’s Rites of Passage is one of the few non-residence African American youth programs designed specifically for two-year colleges.Lane’s program urges African American students to pursue higher education on both community college and four-year campuses and to investigate a variety of careers. Students explore careers in medicine, law and journalism, in addition to athletics and the arts. Both students and families say these programs “open doors and eyes” to the possibility of obtaining a college degree. Black professionals in the community — city officials, educators, entrepreneurs and musicians — speak to the students about their careers and what it takes to be successful.Carla Gary, director of the University of Oregon’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, has been teaching self-empowerment and life skills in Rites of Passage for three summers. She says the program provides validation to minority youth who may otherwise be “marginalized and invisible” in this predominantly White community. That and the fact that many of the students are from multi-racial families creates enormous barriers for healthy identity-shaping. Through guest lecturers, discussions and writing, these teens evaluate their strengths and their limitations, look at how they define themselves, and think about what they would like to do with their lives. Much of the learning occurs through self-examination and experiential exercises that push students to think “outside the box,” Gary says. “They must ask themselves the question: ‘How do I get to where I am going, and what do I need to learn to get there?'” she says.The program’s greatest value stems from “being surrounded by other children of color and hearing someone else say how hard it is to maintain who you are,” Gary says. On a regular school day, the youth are spread throughout the city’s middle schools and high schools, most of which have fewer than a dozen African American students. Once students are in the summer program, they form friendships and make strong connections with other African American teen-agers. Gary says some Black youth express fear of other Black youth because of the negative stereotypes and perceptions of African Americans put forth by their White peers. Thinking outside the boxThe program “opened up a new part of me,” says ninth-grader Eli Cole, who is enrolling in Rites of Passage for the second time. He describes the offerings in the program as separate from the learning that takes place in a traditional classroom, such as the tai chi class, which Cole says, has given him “a lot of meditative skills I can use.” For many of the students, it’s the first time they have been on a college campus or even considered college. “They have never seen themselves as college students,” Evans says. The college builds relationships with the community by bringing the students on campus, Evans says. The students learn about services such as the bookstore, cafeteria and gym. When students learn faculty and staff have faces, phone numbers and addresses, Evans says their campus experience becomes much more personal.Rites of Passage creates a small, supportive community for these youth, or what program instructor Mark Harris calls a “culturally inclusive space.”“I believe the potential exists to create a Rites of Passage program where Whiteness can be deconstructed” and break down the notion that America is synonymous with White, says Harris, Lane’s substance abuse prevention coordinator.For some students, the African American history that Harris and others teach is totally new. “These kids were fed an image that Blacks were savages,” Harris says. “The idea that their history is just about slavery and the civil rights movement overlooks the rich heritage of African American writers, inventors, artists and activists. Not only do these people exist, but they all say that you can do better than they did,” says Harris, who this summer will be combining theprogram’s substance abuse and sexuality workshops for an even more diverse classroom. Cole and seventh-grader Lasha Brown were astonished when they received a six-page list of Black inventors in the summer history class.“I had no idea that Black people had invented all those things,” Cole says.Patricia Dawson, whose two children have participated in the program, says the courses and activities fill a gap in a community that does not offer culturally specific curricula.“Eugene is a little backward in terms of teaching about people of color,” she adds. She laments the shortsightedness of traditional history curricula that is segregated by Black history, American Indian history and Latino history. “We don’t call American history White history.” Dawson wonders why her son learned about the slave “York” in a class devoted to Black history but didn’t learn York’s name in his American history class.Planting seeds earlyEvans first offered the program to high school students, but then decided he should bring the students in at an even younger age. “The earlier we plant the seeds, the earlier we see the seeds come to fruition,” he says. Evans would like to do more follow-up and assessment to better gauge the effectiveness of the program and student successes and failures. But, as a staff of one, he has only had the chance to collect anecdotal information.Evans originally patterned Rites of Passage after a residential program at James Madison University in Virginia called the Talented Tenth, and the Upward Bound program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he received his bachelor’s degree. But, unlike the Upward Bound concept, which offers math and science and provides tutoring, Lane’s program offers culturally based curricula, self- development exercises and career development workshops.He’s pleased that the college has been able to expand the program to include other ethnic groups, and now he’d like to see a time when Lane doesn’t have to turn students away and can extend the program. “I’d like to go out for six weeks,” Evans says. “The kids are just getting into the groove at four weeks, so many don’t want to leave.”The African American Rites of Passage program operates on a $15,000 budget for 25 to 30 students. The budget covers instructional materials and student supplies, student lunch allowances, bus passes and transportation to field trips and personnel expenses. The cost to the college is approximately $750 per student. The cost to the student is $50 but is waived when there is financial hardship. Evans promotes the program in churches and organizations such as the NAACP. He also recruits teens from local middle and high schools by talking to teachers, counselors and principals. Students at Jefferson Middle School who participate in Rites of Passage return to school each fall and share their newfound cultural knowledge in school assemblies. They obviously have developed “a sense of self-worth and leadership and knowledge and appreciation of culture,” says principal Paul Jorgensen. He attributes the program’s success to its emphasis on cultural exploration and self-development. “You can’t understand the world and other cultures until you understand your own,” Jorgensen says.
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