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College prep program guides Knox County’s Latinx students

Founded by Kenyon students, the Bilingual College Preparatory program is in its second year

When Danny Garcia-Archundia ’17, a first-generation college student, heard of Kenyon’s Bilingual College Preparation program, he immediately wanted to join. The program, which helps would-be first -generation college students from Knox County go to college, provides the necessary structure for him to effectively tutor students from the Latino community in Mount Vernon — an activity that he had previously undertaken upon the request of Professor of Spanish Clara Román-Odio.

The Bilingual College Preparation program began in the fall of 2015 and was spearheaded by Mary Sturgess ’16 and Alexa Macaroi ’16. Its mission is to empower would-be first-generation college students in Knox County by providing them with the necessary knowledge and skills to get accepted to, and make an informed decision about, college. Along the way, the program has evolved into something more. Now in its second year, it serves as an important link between Kenyon and the small Latino community of Mount Vernon, as well as a source of meaningful involvement for a group of 14 impassioned Kenyon students.

The program stemmed from a summer research project by Román-Odio, Amelia Dunnell ’17 and Patricia Mota ’16. Their project, called Latinos in Rural America or LiRA, compiled the oral histories of Latinos in Knox County in an exhibit that toured Ohio.

“I asked them what would they like in return for sharing their stories, and they all said unanimously, ‘We want our children to go to college,’” Román-Odio said.

Román-Odio aimed to achieve just that, and looked to her students as vehicles for that change. In Román-Odio’s course “Introduction to Chicano/Chicana Cultural Studies,” she requires what she calls a community-engaged learning component. Román-Odio suggested to a group of her students that they research ways to support local Latinx students in their college application process. The Bilingual College Preparation Project was soon underway.

The students spent several months compiling ACT and SAT preparation material from as many sources as possible. They scoured free websites like Khan Academy and checked out books from nearby libraries. They wanted to go beyond the mere memorization of information and teach the program’s participants about the less intuitive sides of the tests, like time management or what to do with questions to which they did not know the answer.

“It just became this monster stack of documents and quizzes and leaflets that we would give people,” Bridget Murdoch ’17 said. Murdoch, one of Román-Odio’s students, helped prepare the program’s curriculum.

The students designing the curriculum noticed that one of the major hurdles for many Latino students was the language barrier. Misinterpretations of words would often lead to incorrect answers. To address that issue, they decided to also include grammar and comprehension exercises in their lessons.

“I had a ton of resources available to me, and I still felt scared of [the ACT/SAT],” Murdoch said. “I couldn’t even imagine trying to take a test like that in a second language.”

In its first year, the Bilingual College Preparation program adapted their techniques in weekly one-on-one mentoring sessions at the Salvation Army in Mount Vernon — a trusted space in the local Latinx community, according to Garcia-Archundia.

“I remember the first time we all met,” Sebastian Chávez Erazo ’18, a mentor for the program, said. “It was all these Latino high school students and all these bilingual tutors in the same room and I was like ‘Oh my god this is so fantastic.’” He didn ot expect that the opportunity to work so closely with Latinx students in Mount Vernon would be a part of his Kenyon experience.

The group also partnered with Kenyon’s admissions office to offer three different workshops. The first two, aimed at participants in the program, focused on writing college essays and the college application process. Members of the Bilingual College Preparation program played the roles of a mock admissions committee and evaluated different applications to demonstrate what a college looks for in applications. The third workshop, which was taught in Spanish, was targeted at parents and provided education on the financial aid process.

Mentors also educate the program’s participants about their options for colleges. They learn nuanced but important information like the difference between a research university and a liberal arts college. The program’s presidents prepare lesson plans that the mentors review prior to each session. The program even has training sessions for the mentors to ensure they know how to effectively do their job. The mentors practiced working with lesson plans and participated in team-building exercises with the students.

The Bilingual College Preparation program draws about five participants per weekly session and cycles between its dozen or so mentors. Participants are paired with two different mentors that will consistently work with them, which enables them to build a relationship. There is a large age range among the participants, so these individual relationships allow mentors to tailor each lesson to the participant.

“We have people who are seniors and juniors and we also have people who are seventh graders,” Garcia-Archundia said. “Providing ACT/SAT material for a seventh grader can be difficult.”

In the last month, the Bilingual College Preparation program switched its location from the Salvation Army to the Mount Vernon Public Library. The move was motivated by the program’s recent desire to include more participants on top of their small Latinx base. To that end, the library serves as a more neutral space for non-Latinx to participate as well.

The program has received a strong response from Kenyon students who want to be mentors. There are more than enough interested Kenyon students than the program needs to effectively mentor the participating students from Knox County’s small Latino community. As a result, the program aims to expand to all first-generation college students. Garcia-Archundia expects that the program will include more non-Latino students next year.

A first-generation college student’s experience is one to which many mentors of the program, as first generation college students themselves, can relate. That connection is part of why Garcia-Archundia thinks the program is so special. “For these tutors, especially given the group of tutors we’ve had right now, they’ve faced a lot of the same struggles that we are helping these kids to face,” he said.

“I used to be involved in tons of organizations,” he added, “but having a sole focus that is incredibly personal but also asked for by the community has really given me a lot of purpose.”

For Román-Odio, the growth she has already seen among the participants has made the project well worth it. “Some of them started in seventh grade, and now they are in full adolescence,” she said. “They have developed a terrific self-confidence. They are not intimidated to talk in public and that’s really a rewarding thing to see.”

This year, the program mentored its first high school senior — a girl who had been with the program since last year. It was the first test of the program’s success. The girl improved her ACT score by four points in one section and two points in another, but more importantly, she got into all six colleges to which she applied.

Speaking with Professor Román-Odio about the girl, this reporter could not help but notice that her voice carried a sense of pride.