Getting on the College Track

A community mentoring program is supporting OYA students in their pursuit of higher education.

Above: Damon, a college student at MacLaren, works on a laptop in his living unit.

Nick is only 16, but he’s on his way to graduating from Lord High School at the end of this term.

Earning his diploma at a young age is even more impressive when you learn he never attended public school before entering Oregon Youth Authority custody.

Not only has he re-focused his attention on getting a diploma, but Nick has set his sights beyond high school. His goal is to attend Chemeketa Community College to study music or business.

“It’s gonna help me, help my family out, and my tribe,” says Nick, who is Native American and currently at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility. “It’ll help everyone.”

Nick is on track to graduate high school this term and go on to college.

Part of his newfound educational goals came from his close work with a community mentor: Lori Ellis with the Oregon Office of Student Access and Completion, part of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

Through a grant-funded partnership between Ellis’s office and the Willamette Education Service District — which runs Lord High School at MacLaren — students have been getting one-on-one help and advice to put them on the path to college.

That includes Nick, who has been meeting regularly with Ellis over the past year.

“She helps me with sentences and writing for the scholarship applications,” he says. “She was a pretty big support for me.”

The partnership is through a mentoring program called ASPIRE, developed in the late 1990s to encourage students who do not think of education and training beyond high school as an option. Student participants receive information about college options, admissions, and financial aid from trained and supported volunteers who mentor them throughout the year.

“It has been a great help to our college program by informing students of college courses, degrees, careers, CTE (Career and Technical Education) and trade school options that they can apply to,” says Dagny Brown, who coordinates college programs at Lord High School.

ASPIRE is located at 140 sites across Oregon. It first came to OYA several years ago through a day-long program at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility’s New Bridge High School. Students received help filling out scholarship applications and the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

During winter break 2020, a two-week ASPIRE Camp at MacLaren drew about 25 students who also received scholarship application help.

The goal is to expand to all the schools inside OYA facilities, Ellis says. Much of that depends, however, on recruiting more volunteers from the community who understand how to mentor youth in custody.

“Many of these students have more self-esteem and mental health issues than other high school students,” Ellis says. “Every youth that I talk to is talking about the challenges that they had and why they are incarcerated. I think that’s a big hurdle for them. Some of them have done great things by taking advantage of the opportunities (at MacLaren).”

Lord High School currently has about 25 students enrolled in college courses. Most courses are online, with a few offered in person at MacLaren, although the number of in-person offerings was reduced at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic also reduced the number of youth who were able to take college courses in the past year. Health and safety precautions have meant that students can only be around other youth from their living unit, and fewer students can be in the college computer lab at one time.

That’s just one challenge for incarcerated college students. Youth don’t always have access to computers back on their living units, making it more difficult to complete some assignments outside of school time.

Damon is a college student who plans to study social work.

Damon, another student at MacLaren, recently started taking college courses at Chemeketa. Pandemic precautions slowed down his plans a bit.

They didn’t dim his enthusiasm for his education, however. He continues to meet regularly with Ellis and is excited about the college path.

“When I have her go over my scholarship application statements, she’s like, ‘You can juice this up a bit more,’” he says. “For me, it’s a first-time experience. I have to get more in-depth with my statements, elaborate more about my situation. I’ve gotta buckle down and tell them about myself.”

The 20-year-old plans to major in social work so that he can help other young people in the community. His aptitude for supporting his peers was obvious on a recent day at his living unit, where he spent much of his time encouraging the other young men to share their talents with a visitor.

“Due to my experiences and my involvement with the system, I feel I can help others going through time on the streets,” Damon says. “I want to be that helping hand, show them they have the potential to be something more. That’s why I chose social work. I feel like it’s something I can really bloom in.”

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