Outreach project: Ridgewater encourages Latino, Somali students to consider college

WILLMAR -- Minority students make up at least one-quarter of the population at Willmar Senior High, but just a fraction of those students go on to some sort of post-secondary education.

WILLMAR -- Minority students make up at least one-quarter of the population at Willmar Senior High, but just a fraction of those students go on to some sort of post-secondary education.

Ridgewater College faculty, staff and students have planned a series of events to encourage Latino and Somali students to consider going to college.

The outreach project plans two education nights in the upcoming week to allow students and their parents to learn more about what Ridgewater might have to offer them.

The education night for Latinos will be Tuesday and the night for Somalis will be Wednesday. Each will last from 6 to 8 p.m. at Willmar Senior High.

On each evening, a free dinner will be served featuring foods traditional to that ethnic group.


Separate nights will allow the group to provide the right kind of food and interpreters each night, said Lori Park-Smith, a sociology instructor who is coordinating the outreach effort.

The project is part of Ridgewater's Academic Quality Improvement Program. The school usually has four AQIP projects going on at a time, providing a continuous assessment of efforts in key areas. Other current projects address the development of online courses and finding the best way to assess student learning.

The effort is also an extension of the school's 30-year history of promoting diversity and cultural awareness on campus, she said.

The college's Multicultural Club will be part of the outreach. Park-Smith's committee and members of the club met last week to discuss upcoming events. Club members have been invited to greet parents and students at the education nights.

Other plans in the works include continuing a series of soccer scrimmages between the high school and college teams. The series stands at 1-1, with a tiebreaker to be scheduled in the spring.

An art show with works from college, high school and Area Learning Center students is also planned.

Focus groups will meet at the college, high school and junior high levels. The small groups are designed to find out what concerns the high school students might have and to provide answers to their questions.

A college fair that will allow students to learn more about Ridgewater programs is scheduled Feb. 8. "One of our strengths is our accessible faculty," Park-Smith said.


The college's Multicultural Club plans visits to the Senior High and other high schools in the area. Willmar Senior High had a multicultural club at one time, but it no longer exists.

Club president Chantia Newcomb, a student from Eden Valley, said she hopes the club can educate people in small towns about the diversity in the area and at the college.

The group had other ideas for expanding the connections between the high school and college. Park-Smith said she hopes some high school leaders will join the working group at the college.

Jeanette Morales, the school success coordinator at the high school, invited the members of the Multicultural Club to visit her after-school program on Tuesdays and Thursdays. "They see students coming from college as role models," she said.

The education nights will include a presentation about the basics of applying for financial aid, said Edel Fernandez, the college's director of multicultural affairs.

The goal is to let students and their families know that going to college "is possible, it can be done, and the ways to go about it," he said. "It doesn't have to be Ridgewater College, but college in general," he added.

Newcomb said she would like to see the education nights reach out to other cultures, too. Fernandez said organizers chose the two largest groups in the Willmar area so that they could keep the effort manageable in the beginning.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg, and we hope it's a good start," he said.


The college is beginning with two separate nights to try to make people feel more comfortable at these first meetings, said Jenni Swenson, dean of instruction. "We're trying to learn from this ourselves, to see what's working."

Morales and high school counselor Kristy Maher said they believe the college outreach effort, especially the student involvement in it, will help reach students at the high school. Both are members of the college's outreach committee.

Many students want to go to college, but it might be something no one in their family has done before, Morales said. That's something she experienced herself, and she shares that experience with her students.

"I tell them you're worth the education, you're worth a diploma," she said, and then she talks to them about taking the next step in their education.

Morales said she would promote the education nights and call parents to spread the word.

"I think the more people we get involved in getting the message out to students and parents about the importance of education, the more successful it will be," Maher said. "These are people saying, 'This is so important, we're going to get involved.'"

Park-Smith said research has shown that people who are the first in their family to attend college tend to overestimate the cost and underestimate the resources available to help make college affordable. She hopes the meetings next week will help get past some of those misconceptions.

"There's going to be a growing need, as baby boomers begin to retire, for people to provide direction and leadership and assume those responsible roles in our communities," Park-Smith said. "There will be a need for educated workers."

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