Professor works to expand education access

Over the last five years, hundreds of students from low-income schools in Los Angeles have come to USC’s campus for College Access Day, a day-long event for sophomores and juniors in high school.

College Access Day is the brainchild of John Pascarella, an associate professor of clinical education at the USC Rossier School of Education, chair of the Master of Arts in teaching programs and resident faculty member at Marks Tower. The product of a low-income single-parent household, Pascarella reflects on his early experiences shaped his current work.

“I was raised by a mother who didn’t have her education,” Pascarella said. “As a young person, in a low-income, single parent household, Mom moved us a lot — I lived in 18 homes, I went through once and calculated every single place we ever lived.”

Having attended 13 schools by the time of his high school graduation, Pascarella said guidance counselors often weren’t sure how to handle his multiple transcripts and constant moves.

“When you show up to a new school and you have transcripts from multiple schools, your guidance counselor kind of shakes his or her head and says, ‘So how long do I have you? Where are you going next?’” Pascarella said.

Despite the initial obstacles to getting to college, Pascarella is quick to clarify that unlike many of the students who attend College Access Day, he is not a first-generation college student. His grandfather attended college, and his mother eventually completed her degree, 25 years after taking her first college course. Her insistence on her son’s education served as a motivation for him.

“There was always a very, very strong encouragement from my mom,” Pascarella said. “’You will go to college. You will get your degree. You will do it in four years.’”

He did just that, double majoring in African American studies and English literature. Several years later — though not many, as Pascarella is young (he was 29 when he was hired in 2010) — and Pascarella has also attained postgraduate degrees, a masters of teaching and a Ph.D. in culture and values in education. Currently directing the teacher training program at Rossier, he has also taught high school at low-income schools in New Jersey. He is the teacher’s teacher, so to speak.

Pascarella said that what he found missing at his own schools growing up, and in his own educational experience, was not a lack of ambition, but rather a lack of “cultural capital.”

“I don’t want to ever give the impression that low-income kids don’t know what it takes to get into college,” Pascarella said.

Such cultural capital often comes from a young person’s parents, mentors or other people who know about the college application process, when to apply and how to prepare for SAT and AP exams, for example.

“I saw teacher education as a powerful venue for change, to change the way we prepare teachers, to prepare the best teachers to work in the places we need them most,” Pascarella said of how he came to find his calling. “That’s ultimately why I went on for a Ph.D. — to be a teacher educator.”

Jeanmarie Levy, a graduate residential college coordinator for Webb Tower and current Master of Education student, said that Pascarella’s drive is apparent in his work.

“[Pascarella’s] very big on motivating us to remember the why of why we’re planning College Access Day, and providing the mission and vision of the event to make the catalyst of what it’s become today,’” said Levy, who is a first-generation college student herself.

She has helped Pascarella plan College Access Day for the last two years.

She also said that planning the event has helped re-emphasize her own goals.

“It’s shown me that my values really are in outreach and retention of college students and helping students get into college,” Levy said. “Once I graduate I’ll be pursuing a career in this type of work and helping students from these kinds of under-represented backgrounds, first-generation students like myself get into college.”

Beyond College Access Day, which Pascarella envisions growing every year at USC, he has also led a team effort along with other faculty to redesign the graduate program in teacher education that places teacher practice at the center of the coursework.

“We are piloting it — it’s a different way of doing teacher education we haven’t seen done before,” Pascarella said of the program, the initial 18-month phase of which is scheduled to launch in the Fall 2018.

Pascarella also has an eye toward the future. He said he finds himself pondering how even further education, like a law degree, could help him in his desire to see expanded access to education and teacher training.

“My interest is in affecting change for the public good, and the way I do that is through the conduit of teacher education reform, and I believe that education reform, teacher preparation reform, has to happen at the program level,” Pascarella said. “The policy level helps — state and federal policy — but we as programs have to reshape ourselves to be more powerful, more effective, innovative and do so with impact.”