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First-generation, low-income students find a path to college at Columbia

By JOSE A. GIRALT

BRONXITE, DEBORA CAMACHO, is an alumnus of the Freedom and Citizenship program offered by Columbia University.
Photo courtesy of Debora Camcho

Most of the attention on COVID-19 revolves around the physical consequences of its spread, especially in communities of color, but a side effect has to do with a decrease in educational attainment, especially in the Latino community.

The educational fallout from the pandemic can be seen in figures collected by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC). In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, Hispanic enrollments in higher education globally fell by 5.4%. More alarming is the decline in first-time enrollment among Hispanic students, at nearly 20%. These statistics present a difficult future for one of the most dynamic segments of the American population. The NSC’s warning is final. “If we don’t take concerted action to address these declines, the opportunity gaps in this country will only grow and Hispanics will be left behind,” the organization’s representatives said.

Some parents hope to secure a brighter future for their children by encouraging them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, better known by its acronym STEM. By contrast, careers in the humanities, including the study of languages ​​and literature, the arts, philosophy, religion and history, are seen as more unstable by some, with bleak job prospects.

However, although STEM degrees outstrip those in the humanities by a rate of nearly 2 to 1, many scholars, sociologists, and educators continue to promote the humanities. As one college senior observed in a December 2019 article published on studybreaks.com by Madison Feser, “With only mathematicians and engineers, who will record our history? Inspire our creativity? Challenge our politics? Promote our language?

Columbia University is an institution that paves the way to college for those who want to delve into the humanities while securing employment after graduation. The Freedom and Citizenship educational program for New York high school students was founded in 2009 by the Center for American Studies and the Double Discovery Center at Columbia University. During that time, they have helped nearly 400 first-generation, low-income students attend college.

Jessica Harriet Lee earned a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University in 2016 and is the current Executive Director of the program. “We’ve grown to 45 students per year,” Lee said, adding that they started with high school students moving from junior to senior year. “The goal is to expose these high school students to college-level courses in a supportive environment.”

Once accepted, students follow a free four-week program in July that includes an intensive political philosophy seminar. They then engage in a year-long civic leadership project where they research contemporary political issues under the supervision of undergraduate teaching assistants. They are assisted in the college application process by Columbia College undergraduates, and successful students receive letters of recommendation from their summer faculty.

Growing up across from the Bronx Zoo on Southern Boulevard, 19-year-old Puerto Rican Debora Camacho was attending Bronx High School for Law and Community Service at Theodore Roosevelt Educational Campus on Fordham Road when she was encouraged to apply in 2020 to the Freedom and Citizenship program. The idea of ​​studying philosophy didn’t appeal to him much at first. “The thought of [studying] the philosophy, thinking about it really hurt my brain… but I went for it,” Camacho said. “Why not do philosophy?”

ON A RAINY DAY, students walk inside Columbia University’s Morningside Heights campus.
Photo by José A. Giralt

The critical thinking that accompanies questioning the production of knowledge has not been easy for Camacho, who describes himself as “more [of] a STEM person” and was part of the “Girls Who Code” group. But something about philosophy piqued his interest. “Since I went into more humanities [and] philosophy [studies], oh my god, it was such a big difference and I’m glad I took it! she says. “It’s opened my eyes to a lot of things……thinking about bigger, bigger questions…instead of just settling for one answer because there can be multiple answers to no one. whatever…and how that sounds pretty cool.”

A future in the humanities can be concerning for parents who may not be familiar with such a broad field of study. “I think there is an idea that the humanities are dead or [if] they are [even] relevant,” Lee said. “Most of our students are like Debora; they kind of come into the program planning to major in STEM, thinking “philosophy might be interesting,” and then that changes after the program. The majority of our students major in the humanities and social sciences. They are relevant texts, they are relevant questions, they are relevant conversations, and the students are interested in them.

Indeed, rather than having to choose between studying a STEM subject or a humanities subject, Camacho sees the possibility of a more holistic approach. “Humanities are important, STEM are important; you can combine the two,” she said, adding that it is entirely possible for students to find ways to study what they love while being financially stable. Camacho is currently enrolled at Smith College, a private liberal arts college for women in Massachusetts. It is described by The Princeton Review as “an incredibly prestigious, diverse, academically rigorous, socially liberal, and highly respected institution.”

According to Micaela Cacho-Negrete, head of public relations and digital presence at Freedom and Citizenship, to date, Columbia University’s program has generated such interest that it recently helped create “Knowledge for Freedom.” , a national consortium of schools that will create similar programs at more than 25 universities by 2024, reaching thousands of students.

For parents and high school students who look at Camacho’s impressive resume and conclude the program isn’t for them, Cacho-Negrete has some encouraging words. “We are always trying to reach more students,” she said. “It wasn’t just one girl who did this…. She did it; You can do it too! We are accepting applications and want to hear from you! The link to apply is: https://freedomandcitizenship.columbia.edu/apply.

Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.