Durham Student U builds support for first-generation students in college and beyond

Program advocates and Durham educators Ketty Thelemaque and Brittany Del Rosario welcome students to the W.G. Pearson Center with song and dance. (Staff Photo by Molly Weisner)

Early last Saturday in Durham, high school teachers and education advocates braved frigid winds to gather outside the W.G. Pearson Center on  600 E. Umstead St. and welcome students with song and dance.

Once inside, parents and students met program leaders and some teachers from their schools who were ready to lead a full morning of pre-college workshops.

Jesus Flores, Osman Portillo and Johan Cruz, all seniors in Durham high schools, attend the College Promise Program workshop with Derrick Beasley, college success coordinator. (Staff Photo by Molly Weisner)

The mandatory event for all ninth through 12th grade students in the Student U program included sessions on financial literacy, a college Q&A, parent groups and self-care workshops.

“This is a great program,” Nicole Kendall, a parent of two StudentU participants, said. “I always tell people how it’s not only academic, but it’s other great resources inside of Student U that you can get involved in. And it’s also the great resources that they offer the community to give back and do.”

Many of the leaders at U-Prep Day — the Feb. 8 event held twice a semester — were former Student U participants themselves. Alexandra-Emmanuelle Zagbayou, executive director, said that’s the goal.

“The ultimate dream is to not need organizations like Student U,” she said. “Success is not just graduating college. It’s what [students] do when they’re 50. Success is the transformation of our city by our students, educators and parents.”

During the College Promise session, Derrick Beasley, college success coordinator, and Elena Maina, associate director of college advising and success, addressed some of the common concerns and goals students and families have related to college.

Common concerns include paying for tuition, passing classes and being a minority in a predominantly white institution. Dreams mentioned ranged from becoming an athletic trainer to completing nursing school.

“Really [to] go to college,” Osman Portillo, a student at Riverside High School, said during the group discussion. “I’m not afraid of anything.”

The College Promise program keeps up with students after high school for four to six years. Students are visited by mentors within the program during their first year of college. An emergency fund also exists for unexpected expenses that might arise during college.

“Even though we’re not able to be there on your campus every day, we’re just a phone call, a text, away,” Beasley said during the session. “Any time you’re in Durham, it’s kind of like an open door.”

Though the U-Prep Day event was for high school students, Durham Student U also serves middle schoolers.

Durham youth can join the program, which serves 600 youth, beginning in sixth grade and remain in it until they graduate college. The nonprofit aims to create a more just and equitable Durham by building a support network of educators and advocates for students, according to their website. Their goal is to encourage first-generation, college-bound students to excel in college and beyond.

Students can stay in the Student U program for 11 years. Many choose to pass the experience on to family and peers.

Both of Nicole Kendall’s children attended the Student U program. Her son, Lonnie, graduated from the program and returned to the program to teach. Now, her daughter, Makyla, is a junior at Hillside High School in the program.

Nicole Kendall said the program expanded opportunities within and outside of Durham by exposing students to the outside world through Student U mentors and summer trips.

“It’s also great because you have other kids in here that won’t see outside of Durham,” Nicole Kendall said. “If they weren’t in this program, all they would see is Durham.”

Makyla Kendall says she wants to be an educator one day. She said she values the relationships she’s made with Student U instructors.

“I’ve gotten close with the teachers,” she said. “They all connect with me; I connect with them. I tell them a lot of stuff.”

Relationships between staff and students provide additional support outside the home, especially in first-generation student households.

In the future, Zagbayou hopes to build the leadership of parents with children in Student U. She wants to provide opportunities for parents to earn their GED diploma or attend college. Zagbayou also said offering resources for parents ultimately helps them in being the first advocate for their kids.

In addition to being first-generation college-bound students, many of the students in the program qualify for free or reduced lunch. Many are also students of color. As it stands, the public education system, according to Student U, disproportionately affects minority students and families.

White students are five times more likely to graduate college than black and Hispanic students, according to a page on the Student U website.

“We are centered in education, but the issues we face are systemic,” Zagbayou said. “Policies actually create conditions.”

So, while many of of its resources are based in supporting education, Student U hopes to ultimately provide a positive racial identity for students in the program, so they might engage in their communities as actors of change.

“It’s good training grounds for how to do justice-oriented education work,” Zagbayou said.

To get involved with Student U, positions are available for seasonal teaching positions or tutoring volunteers. Supporters can also make donations online.

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