UCR Students Still the Largest Group of City Year Corps Members Working to Increase Graduation Rates in Poor Urban Schools

STEM graduates say the service is especially rewarding, not just in giving back, but in gaining a deeper perspective

Alex Owens said the most important thing he learned during his time at City Year, is showing students that he cares. Photo Credit Elliot Haney

By Jeanette Marantos

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — University of California, Riverside biology graduate Michelle Ramon is starting medical school at UCLA in June. UCR mathematics graduate Alex Owens loves crunching numbers and wants to get his doctorate in public policy administration. So why, after four years of intense coursework, would they spend their first year out of college working for a pittance, 10 hours a day, five days a week, in some of Los Angeles’ worst performing schools?

“Because I was surrounded 24/7 by science, and I knew there was more to who I am, and how I got to be here,” said Ramon. “We all tend to live in a bubble and don’t take the time to look outside the bubble at what’s happening in nearby communities. I’ve learned that people aren’t getting the adequate education they deserve, and it’s just like medicine. We know people should all receive the same adequate care, so why not the same education?”

Owens agreed, saying while the experience in intense, it put much of his learning into perspective. “So many times in STEM fields there’s an overemphasis on the quantitative — You know, ‘We need the numbers so we can write the grants and get the money.’ Doing City Year forces you to see the human aspect of things. Yes, all those metrics and goals are necessary to keep the job alive, but this is the reason we do the work. It’s for the students, so we can make a difference in their lives.”

UC Riverside students seem to understand this quality intuitively, said Bert Rivera, senior recruitment manager for City Year, a not-for-profit Americorps organization focused on improving high school graduation rates in poor, inner-city communities. City Year has 3,000 college students and graduates working in its program in 26 cities around the United States, and for the third year in a row, UCR is the university with the highest number of applicants — 131 in the current year.

Why such strong participation? UCR has a very diverse student body, and is very highly ranked for community service, but Rivera says he’s noticed something else after his four years of recruiting.

“Riverside is just real,” Rivera said. “A lot of the students are first-generation college students who can relate to the struggles of the students they’ll be working with. They know how important hard work is. The community service isn’t a status thing. The students are just real; they’re about doing the hard work and it shows, because it pays off.”

UCR does foster a strong community service ethic with its students, said Jim Sandoval, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, but like Rivera, he credits the students with bringing the passion that makes the programs work. “We have many first-generation students who have had to deal with tremendous adversity as they’ve grown up, so they carry with them a deeper and fuller appreciation for the opportunities they have here at UCR. We just do our best to create opportunities for the students to fulfill their aspirations to give back to their communities.”

City Year isn’t a huge financial gain for participants: It’s an Americorps program that pays members just $980 a month, plus a $5,730 scholarship for higher education costs when they’re done. But both Owens and Ramon said the things they’ve learned from the program have more than compensated for the hard work and meager income.

Owens has enjoyed the program so much he stayed on a second year to become a team leader, and he hopes to join the City Year staff in the data department. City Year members are generally assigned to work with 10 to 12 students for an entire year, and they must document the time they spend with each student every day. All that data helps members track how students are doing, and what programs seem to help them the best, Owens said, but it’s also easy for the “human element” to get lost in all the data. That’s why he recommends the actual classroom experience to his fellow mathematicians.

“That’s one of my strengths now, bringing the human element into all those numbers, so when we’re creating reports and presentations on the grant-writing side, you can actually see the people we’re serving. It helps us see why we’re on the ground working with the students every day. This work really changes your perspective on things, and it’s very enlightening.”

The most important thing he’s learned from his City Year experience? “Just the importance of showing someone that you care,” Owens said. “Students are so much more complex and deep than their GPAs and so many times, the biggest turnarounds I see in students is when we just sit down and talk. They tell me the things they’ve been through and what they want to accomplish in life and it’s really an honest communication. Grades only tell you part of the story.”

Michelle Ramon joined City year after graduating from UCR in 2014.

Ramon says her City Year experience was eye-opening at multiple levels. She immersed herself in school at UCR — she grew up wanting to be a doctor, with her parents’ full-throated support — but in the back of her mind, she knew something was missing.

“I felt like I had kind of lost myself to medicine, and City Year would give me a chance to explore another part of myself while I was giving back to my community,” she said.

It was a big step for her, however. She pretty much grew up in Riverside and had never lived away from home, so when she was assigned to work at the Alan LeRoy Locke College Prep Academy in Watts,  “I was a little afraid, to be honest. First of all, Locke has a very bad reputation for a lot of gang-driven crime, so I was uncomfortable about my safety. But second of all, I don’t know anything about education. What if I can’t get through to these kids? That was something I was very afraid of.”

The work has been the most challenging thing she’s ever done, Ramon said, but it’s also taught her valuable lessons about herself, and how to be a better doctor.

“With a lot of these students, you can’t just go into their classrooms and teach them math or English. You have to take into account their backgrounds, what they know or don’t know, and their attitudes towards education,” she said. “It could be the same scenario for my patients, especially since I’m wanting to work in underserved communities. I can’t just tell my patients to do something; I need to know their backgrounds. What do they know about diabetes? What’s their view on taking medications or on health care in general? City Year has helped me be a little more in tune with people’s experiences and attitudes, and take that into account when I’m trying to help them.”

Most surprising, she said, was how the experience has helped her grow personally. “Definitely this was a risk. Sometimes the students aren’t open to you helping them, and you have to have a thick skin and not take it personally. It’s a two-way street…you learn from the kids and they learn from you. It’s challenging, very challenging, but at the end of the day, it’s a very, very good experience. Now I know if I want something, I’m going to go for it, regardless of the fear I may have.”

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