College access initiative adjusts to virtual format

Graphic of books arranged into a staircase. Thought bubbles are around the staircase, with the silhouette of a person on a laptop and a person graduating. At the top of the staircase, three figures are surrounded by symbols of computer apps.
The Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative supports first generation students on their path to college access. (Emma Detrick | Daily Trojan)

USC’s Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative is one of many organizations that had to adapt to a virtual platform during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The program focuses on creating a pathway to college for first generation students and has helped over 1,000 students since its foundation 24 years ago. For a majority of these students and their families, the shift to online programs posed a new challenge, as many face unstable internet connection in their homes or have difficulties with technological literacy. 

Ivonne Rodriguez, a project specialist at NAI who works directly with families, observed these problems first hand. She said that circumstances, such as living in multi-generational households where students may have difficulties finding a space to speak about themselves or their personal beliefs freely in their home, can pose challenges for students’ academic success in a virtual setting.

“We ask, sometimes, for students and families to turn on their cameras,” Rodriguez said. “Then you realize that the only space they have to do that is a little corner, or in a garage or outside if they are able to get a connection.” 

Families are also required to take part in the program. They must attend eight Family Development Institute sessions, where members of the initiative teach family members ways to create a healthy learning environment in their home for their students. Lizette Zarate, program director at NAI, calls the transition of this program to Zoom a “culture shock” for many in the community the initiative serves. 

“Even our parent component moved over to Zoom so you can imagine [we have been] helping our families who might not be comfortable on a computer, who might never have been on a computer, teaching them now how to access these weekly sessions,” Zarate said. 

The inequities expand beyond the classroom as well. Over the course of the past year, the initiative shifted to provide personal needs, like food and clothes, for their students’ and families’, even more than before the pandemic. 

“When COVID hit, some of the needs in the community just looked much different,” Rodriguez said. “They were exasperated … because of lack of employment, having to quarantine, all of these things.” 

Kim Thomas-Barrios, associate senior vice president of educational partnerships at NAI, said that in the last year, NAI has likely helped pay for more funerals than in the past 20 years. 

“We’ve had families who were completely overrun by [the coronavirus], where everyone was sick,” Thomas-Barrios said. “We had some parents who have passed away, many of whom were breadwinners because they were in the front lines and essential workers.” 

Despite the hardships, Thomas-Barrios is grateful that the initiative’s students have enough trust in the people in the program to seek their help in the midst of troubling circumstances.

“It is our duty and our honor to be able to hold hands with these families in such a trusted fashion so that we’re able to really ensure that these students are able to stay in the college pathway,” Thomas-Barrios said. 

The pandemic also inspired NAI to strengthen their partnership with the School of Social Work. In addition to previously established counseling services, the social work team launched initiatives such as “Wellness Wednesdays,” where students receive self-improvement tips through social media. The team also created a book club and an additional support group for both middle and high school students. 

“We’ve always had really tight communication with our constituents, but since the pandemic struck, we’ve been far more involved in what’s happening, making sure that our families and students have their needs met, whatever needs we can support,” Zarate said. “We’ve been able to step in, and we’ve really inserted ourselves into what’s going on.”

The transition toward greater technology use also prompted NAI to create an app for students and families. Now, each student can register for programming on their mobile device and easily find the Zoom link they need in one place.

“Out of adversity or necessity comes … invention,” Thomas-Barrios said. “[The pandemic] has made us really think deeper about how we can automate some of the functions of an online Saturday Academy program, while keeping the same kind of in-person feel.”

Additional changes and services are likely to be implemented throughout the coming years, Zarate said, even as NAI prepares for an eventual return to in-person learning. 

“We know [next year] will look different in some aspects,” Zarate said. “We’re okay with that because … we’ve had so many lessons this year that will allow us to be nimble to whatever limitations are presented to us.”