Campus & Community

Program sends DU students into Denver high schools to develop community organizing skills

Today’s high school students know they face a world challenged by daunting problems.

What they don’t always know is that they have the power to address — perhaps even solve — some of these problems.

That’s where the University of Denver’s Public Achievement team comes in. Throughout the academic year, the team — made up of 16 undergraduate and four graduate students — heads to a handful of area high schools, where they coach participating students in the ins and outs of community organizing.

Following a model developed by the national Public Achievement program, the DU coaches spend much of the academic year helping students build teams, identify issues they want to address and formulate action plans. Along the way, the DU students serve as role models, demonstrating leadership skills and the many ways in which a college education empowers.

“Students see that they have a role to play in creating change,” says Cara DiEnno, associate director of DU’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, which administers the Public Achievement effort at DU. The Public Achievement model was developed by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, and it has now spread to countries outside the United States.

With empowering high school students in mind and with, as DiEnno puts it, “agitating them to be their best selves” as a goal, DU’s Public Achievement students finish their year’s work by staging an annual Public Achievement Summit. The event brings the students to campus to share their projects, celebrate their accomplishments and, just as important, see firsthand what college is like.

The 2015 summit was designed and organized by a committee of DU coaches led by Neda Kikhia, a junior majoring in communications and religious studies. Held on April 10, the summit welcomed 40 students from South High School and Strive Prep Academy in Denver and from the College Track program at Rangeview High School in Aurora.

“I think the summit is a great opportunity for the students to interact with one another in a spirit of community activism,” Kikhia explains.

For Kikhia and the other DU coaches, the summit was also a forum for demonstrating a different definition of leadership — not the model that offers “one person at the top and I am going to tell other people what to do,” but one based on the idea that “power lies within people and their ability to act.”

That ability to act was on display during the summit’s opening event, a presentation by the high school students of their Public Achievement projects, which addressed everything from racial discrimination and hunger to gender identity and teen suicides. One group shared their “I am >” (“I am greater than”) campaign, focused on self-worth and self-image through dozens of “more than” messages: “I am > my test scores,” “I am > my skin color,” “I am > my family’s income.”

After the presentations and an ice-breaking exercise, the students broke into groups, each including representation from each of the participating schools. They then enjoyed tours of campus structured around their interests and led by the DU coaches, who took pains, Kikhia says, to share their favorite study spots, coffee haunts and outdoor retreats.

The coaches also spent time answering questions students might have been reluctant to ask someone they didn’t know. What’s it like to live in a dorm? How do you know what to major in? How’s the food? What happens if you don’t get along with your roommate?

Students also learned about extracurricular opportunities on campus. One student interested in government was intrigued to learn that at the college level, student government involves writing, proposing and perhaps even passing legislation, not just event planning.

“A lot of times you are fed this idea of college, but you don’t really know,” Kikhia says, adding that the summit offered students a chance of “actually seeing this glimpse into what college is: I can see myself in college. I can see myself in class.”

The tours were followed by a mix of workshops, some designed to offer information about the college application process, others created to provide a taste of college-level work. They ranged from “First-Generation College Students and Navigating College Spaces” and “Global Brigades: Working Toward an Equal World” to “Perception and the Brain” and “Voicing Your Identity: Breaking Free From Old Stories.”

In “Voicing Your Identity,” students explored the value of stories rich in context and the shortcomings of single stories rooted in labels. It was material that complemented the students’ Public Achievement projects beautifully. Creation, a student from South High School, noted how some people use race to predetermine an individual’s story. Another student, Jesus, pointed out how society’s prevailing narrative of two genders excludes people who express themselves as bigender.

While the high school students left campus with a better sense of how, as Kikhia puts it, “to own who they are and share that with everybody,” the DU coaches finished the day pleased to have shared their insight into creating change with tomorrow’s college students.

Kikhia sums up that insight this way: Change may seem impossible, but “anything you do in that direction is one more step.”

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