Pima Community College

Earlier this month, Pima Community College won a regional award from the Association of Community College Trustees for its efforts to further equity and inclusion across its six campuses. But it wasn’t about simply increasing the number of enrolled students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

According to Libby Howell, the college’s executive director of community relations, Pima has been working to break down barriers that low-income and first generation students often face when it comes to accessing higher education.

A big part of that effort is Pima’s nine TRIO programs, which were created and are funded through the U.S. Department of Education. Four of them are Upward Bound programs, which specifically focus on low-income and first generation high school students to help them prepare for college. Each program serves about 65 students annually.

Esperanza Duarte, a program manager with Upward Bound at Pima’s east campus, said the core component of what they do is supplemental instruction and academic advising. They tutor high school students, starting with freshmen and sophomores, in core subjects like math and English language arts, and offer other supplemental courses like lab science, foreign language, social studies and fine arts.

Program managers will also help students pick out their classes for the next semester and create plans for how to save a slipping grade. During the school year, Upward Bound meets with these students on Saturdays at Pima’s East Campus. In the summer, they have classes Monday through Friday for six weeks.

All of this is provided to the students for free, thanks to the grant money they receive every five years.

“We are all about removing barriers for these students to access postsecondary education,” Duarte said. “It’s about paving the way for college access, helping the students understand that college, not necessarily at Pima but anywhere, is accessible and it is for them.”

While funded through the college, Upward Bound is focused on high school students, some as early as 14 years old, because starting early is “incredibly advantageous” for a student’s long-term success, according to Duarte. 

She said this type of outreach helps them build the skills they’ll need later on when they enter the world of higher education.

“Typically, this population of students don't have the cultural capital or the family background to be able to navigate this system that makes college successful,” Duarte said. “There is not a set of skills that they can rely upon to tell them how to fill out an application for federal student aid, or how to find scholarships they might qualify for.”

Duarte believes the vision of higher education doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on the skills that go along with college success beyond academia, and Upward Bound helps provide some of the social development needed for that.

“We help them create that skill set that if you start to struggle, you have to ask for help,” Duarte said. “It’s not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength that you’re actually seeking the assistance when you need it.”

The Association of Community College Trustees also cited Pima’s Immigrant and Refugee Student Resource Center as a reason for the award. Hilda Ladner, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer with the college, helped spearhead the center’s current headquarters at the downtown campus, which launched in February. Since then, they’ve served more than 140 students from immigrant, refugee or asylum-seeking backgrounds.

“We specialize in knowing what resources are going to be available, not just at the college but in the community, for immigrant and refugee students,” Ladner said. “A big part of the work we do is meeting with students individually, often with their families, to talk through what are the funding options.”

The center also works as a place where people can educate themselves on federal, state and local laws that may affect immigrant and refugee students. Yolanda Gonzales, a program coordinator with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said a big part of the job is making sure students are aware of their rights and are connected with community organizations that can provide helpful services to their families.

One such instance: A new rule enacted by the Trump administration earlier this month that would deny green cards and visas to immigrants who use (or expect to use) public assistance such as food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid. Ladner said this doesn’t affect very many of their students, but it may still cause alarm about how this applies to them or what the implications might be.

“This information can be confusing and sometimes keep people from accessing resources that they are eligible for and should be using to advance their lives,” Ladner said. “We’re not legal experts by any means, but we want to make sure we understand these different pieces going on that could impact someone’s ability or desire to be in higher education.”

Aside from academic guidance, a significant aspect of the center’s role is to provide a space where these students feel comfortable. 

“A lot of our students right now are stressing out because of the out-of-state tuition they’re having to pay,” Gonzales said. “We provide that space so they come in, we have a conversation, we listen, we guide them, we provide that comfort that we’re here for them, we’ll try our best to help them in any way we can.”

The IRSRC has partnered with more than 25 organizations to refer students to for a variety of needs such as GED and legal assistance. Currently, the center is in a temporary space. While they’re still working on their long-term plans for a permanent home, IRSRC representatives visit with high schools and conduct outreach to meet people where they are.

“To go to our community is also a really big part of this, especially with immigrants, refugees and asylees, to go out into the spaces where they are, to extend that invitation first so that it feels more comfortable coming onto the college campus,” Ladner said. “Sometimes it can feel inaccessible, even as a community college, sometimes people aren’t sure if they should come in our doors.”

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