Outreach efforts offer access to underrepresented students


Stephanie Camarena says she didn’t know anything about college before participating in a University of Michigan summer research program.

Before her senior year at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, she joined D-RISE, an initiative that provides on-campus housing and research laboratory internships to Michigan high school students.

The program’s goal is to expose students to the research enterprise and inspire students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue a career in the sciences.

For Camarena, the program affirmed her passion for science and gave her an inside look into the world of higher education — a precious opportunity given that she would be a first-generation college student.

Along with gaining research experience at the School of Public Health, the program linked Camarena to various resources. She learned about financing her education from the Office of Financial Aid, and received feedback on her admissions essays from Sweetland Center for Writing tutors.

Camarena, now an LSA junior studying biochemistry and Spanish, still pursues laboratory research.

Photo of Stephanie Camarena
When she was in high school, LSA junior and first-generation college student Stephanie Camarena received valuable research experience at U-M as part of D-RISE, one of the many educational outreach initiatives faculty and staff engage in to help students across the state. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

“If it wasn’t for the D-RISE program, I would not be currently doing research,” Camarena said. “As a first-generation student, I did not directly have an experienced and older figure around to guide me through the important decisions that come with the college experience.

“I discovered research on accident. There was no one who really came up to me and said, ‘I recommend that you look into research because, it will help you build crucial field-related skills.’ I’ve always learned through self-explored experiences and opportunities.”

The D-RISE program is one of many ways U-M faculty and staff engage in educational outreach to serve Michigan communities.

Aligning with the university’s initiatives to enhance public engagement and diversity, equity and inclusion, educational outreach programs can help create a pipeline for underrepresented students to gain access to the university.

But for many outreach programs, the goal isn’t just to introduce students to U-M — it’s to expose students to higher education and careers, build relationships with local communities, and ultimately help students see college as an option for their futures.

“We’re a public institution, we have some of the most amazing faculty in the world, and we’re in a state that is declining in terms of educational outcomes for students,” said Kim Lijana, the director of U-M’s Center for Educational Outreach. “So we see this as really taking the great expertise and resources we have on our campus and contributing to the state in a meaningful way that will also really make a difference in terms of the students we have at our institution.”

The Center for Educational Outreach is U-M’s central hub that supports faculty, staff and students to develop and implement outreach programming.

Lijana said that, over time, faculty members have said they’ve paid out of their own pockets to conduct outreach, and that they wanted to expand their efforts but didn’t have the funds to do so.

To address these concerns, the center established the Faculty Structured Outreach Support Fellowship Program last year to promote educational outreach in the state of Michigan. The fellowship provides financial and consulting support to U-M faculty interested in advancing their educational outreach activities.

For instance, the grant funded an intensive college preparation day for Detroit high school students, sent additional students to train in the performing arts, and connected more local high school students to research opportunities.

The projects demonstrate not only the impact outreach programs can have on the trajectories of students, but also show the integral role funding and central infrastructure play in helping these initiatives flourish.

“President Schlissel talks about talent being equally distributed but opportunity is not,” Lijana said. “This is one of the ways we see U-M contributing to more opportunities in the state.”

Reaching across campus, into communities

For one of the projects funded through the center’s SOS Fellowship Program, School of Music, Theatre & Dance faculty members used the grant to expand access to the MPulse Summer Performing Arts Institutes.

An audition-based program, the institutes bring youth to the Ann Arbor campus to pursue studies and training in the performing arts.

The faculty leads on this project include Janet Maylie, associate professor of theatre (acting); Eugene Rogers, director of choral activities and conductor of chamber choir; Dennis Wilson, associate professor of jazz and contemporary improvisation; and Robin Wilson, associate professor of dance.

Typically, the residential on-campus program requires students to pay tuition, ranging from roughly $1,600 to $4,500.

The center’s funding allowed faculty and staff to travel to schools across Michigan for auditions and workshops, and covered nine partial scholarships for students from St. Joseph, Detroit, Southfield and Farmington Hills who may not have been able to attend the program otherwise. Application fees were waived, and enrolled SMTD students also spoke to high schoolers about attending college to study the arts.

“These resources allow only talent, skill and potential to become the focal point of the program,” said Rogers, who is the faculty director of MPulse’s Vocal Arts Institute.

“Summer programs like this can be very elite and homogenous, and through this funding, it allows us to prevent this from becoming a program for only the wealthy and elite,” Rogers said. “It allows it to be a program that’s open to all students, regardless of their background and financial status.”

By providing students access to performing arts training, it also makes them competitive candidates during the admissions process for arts programs — paving the way for a more diverse pool of students.

In another CEO-funded project, U-M faculty and staff created an all-day event to help Detroit high schoolers learn about and prepare for college as part of a five-day, on-campus residential visit.

Part of the Summer Youth Dialogues on Race and Ethnicity, a partnership of The Program on Intergroup Relations and the School of Social Work, the all-day event allowed students to take mock college courses with U-M faculty and graduate students, listen to presentations from the offices of financial aid and admissions, and learn about writing admissions essays.

“Outreach is a form of scholarship,” said Barry Checkoway, co-director of the youth dialogues program and Arthur Dunham Collegiate Professor of Social Work. “It is part of the role of the scholar to think about how their expertise can apply to strengthening our society. That to me seems part of what the University of Michigan was established to do.”

Roger Fisher, co-director of the youth dialogues program and co-associate director of The Program on Intergroup Relations, said the funding supported housing and meals for the students for the day. Without the funds, the additional day of college programming would not have been possible, he said.

Nowadays, Fisher said, there is a greater emphasis on educational outreach at U-M and greater coordination of these efforts.

“We’re not a private institution that is simply hanging out a shingle for consumers,” Fisher said. “We’re serving the community and serving the citizens of the state, and so I think part of that social responsibility shows up as outreach.”

Looking to the future

For Nicolai Lehnert, founder of the D-RISE program and professor of chemistry and biophysics in LSA, the center’s funds brought two more students to join his program last summer.

He started the outreach program when he noticed the low number of underrepresented minority students in his upper-level chemistry undergraduate courses.

“You start to realize it’s because of (students) being disadvantaged in college access and high school education,” Lehnert said. “I just felt that society should do something about it and we, as the University of Michigan, should have an interest in doing something about this because they’re right here. This is essentially in front of our doorstep so we should be making an effort to help and ultimately recruit these students.”

Lehnert suggested the university create an office that could assist in the administrative work required of outreach programs, such as conducting background checks and organizing housing for high school students. Although staff from his own department helped launch his program, he said he might not have been able to create the program if he worked within a smaller department.

Fisher agreed, saying some great ideas never come to fruition because of barriers associated with the administrative tasks needed to get programs off the ground.

When it comes to what advice he would give faculty and staff who want to conduct outreach, Fisher said, “It’s not something you can add water and stir.”

To do the work well, he said, one must intend to start and maintain relationships with communities, as well as prove oneself to be trustworthy.

“You really need to be able to sincerely and legitimately say, ‘We’ll be here today, we’ll be here tomorrow, we see this as serving our public and your neighborhood, and (we) want to help your young people achieve their dreams and goals.’”


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