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Discovering My Agency: Exploring How Youth Participatory Action Research Facilitates the Development of Capital by Underserved Youth in a College Access Program


by Tara D. Hudson, Darris Means & Elizabeth Tish - 2020

Background/Context: College access programs aim to enhance students’ college-going capital, which includes the “knowledge, skills, or dispositions” that support students’ pathways to and through higher education (Means & Pyne, 2016, p. 391). While some college access programs aim to remedy students’ “deficiencies” in capital (Bloom, 2008), strengths-based approaches recognize and amplify the cultural assets and capital that marginalized individuals and their communities possess. One such approach is community-based youth participatory action research (YPAR), which empowers young people as co-researchers to investigate topics of importance in their lives. Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study explored how participation in a community-based YPAR project facilitated the college aspirations and perceived development of college-going capital among underserved (low-income, first-generation, and racially and ethnically minoritized) youth in a college access program. Setting: The setting for this research was a university-based college access and success program, Achievement Program (pseudonym).

Population/Participants/Subjects: Ten high school tenth-graders in Achievement Program participated in the YPAR project. All are low-income and first-generation students and eight identify as Students of Color.

Intervention/Program/Practice: YPAR project participants assisted in designing and executing a qualitative research study on the barriers and opportunities that first-generation and/or low-income college students face. Participants also engaged in related activities such as reflective journaling, a trip to meet with national higher education policy organizations, and community engagement. Research Design: This research utilized an interpretive case study approach. Data Collection and Analysis: Data were drawn from three one-on-one, semi-structured interviews with each participant, photo elicitation, and one focus group with all ten participants. For analysis, the authors collaboratively developed a codebook focused on the impact of YPAR participation on development of college-going capital.

Findings/Results: Participants showed evidence of beginning to understand that although the college-going barriers they have faced are systemic, they hold power to challenge those barriers and effect positive change. YPAR participation also enabled participants to recognize their connections with and responsibility toward their communities and helped them connect educational pursuits such as research with working to improve college access and success for other low-income and first-generation students.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This study provides evidence for how incorporating community-based YPAR into college access programs can empower youth from underserved populations as agents of their college-going journeys by connecting them with college-going capital located within their communities. Therefore, we recommend that college access program professionals incorporate YPAR projects into their curricula to better support underserved students’ college-going journeys.

Educational disparities (e.g., college access and enrollment) between low-income, first-generation college students and their middle and upper class counterparts with a family history of college attendance and attainment persist in higher education (e.g., Cahalan & Perna, 2015; Engle & Tinto, 2008; Kena et al., 2014). The federal government, higher education institutions, and community-based organizations developed college access programs to address college access inequity faced by low-income, first-generation college students, and racially and ethnically minoritized students by promoting college awareness and attendance (Bloom, 2008; Corwin, Colyar, & Tierney, 2005; Perna, Harkavy, & Bowman, 2012; Perna & Swail, 2001; Swail, Quinn, Landis, & Fung, 2012a; Tierney & Hagedorn, 2002). While often acknowledging larger structural barriers (e.g., financial aid policies, classism), college access programs “for the most part do not and cannot address” macro-level challenges (Bloom, 2008, p. 2). Thus, these programs often focus on addressing individual barriers for underserved students (low-income, first-generation, and racially and ethnically minoritized students) by helping students to build and enhance their social and cultural capital in preparation for higher education (Bloom, 2008).

College access programs, focusing on building social and cultural capital in higher education, aim to enhance students’ college-going capital and college capital, which both include the “knowledge, skills, or dispositions” that support students’ pathways to and through higher education (Means & Pyne, 2016, p. 391). Drawing upon Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural and social capital, college-going capital refers to the forms of cultural and social capital related specifically to aspiring to and accessing college (Bloom, 2008; George Mwangi, Cabrera, & Kurban, 2018), while college (or collegiate) capital refers to forms of cultural and social capital needed to be successful in persisting through and graduating from college once enrolled (Means & Pyne, 2016; Spenner, Buchmann, & Landermann, 2004). Thus, both college-going and college capital are subsets of cultural and social capital oriented toward specific goals (attending and completing college, respectively). We primarily focus here on the role of college access programs in developing students’ college-going capital.

Bloom (2008) argued that “college access programs too often ignore the complex underlying mechanism through which social and cultural capital work and address disparities in simplistic ways, practicing the kind of ‘banking’ methods that Freire names as educationally oppressive” (p. 2). The banking model, based on a deficit framework, assumes that underserved students lack the forms of social and cultural capital that enable them to access and succeed in college. The goal of college access programs that operate under the banking model is therefore to remedy this deficit by providing college-going capital to students in the form of the skills and knowledge they lack so that they can successfully navigate their educational experiences. The knowledge, skills, and abilities that underserved students and their communities do possess are not “valued by privileged groups in society” (Yosso, 2005, p. 76) and therefore not recognized as forms of college-going capital from a deficit-based perspective (Bloom, 2008; Yosso, 2005). Thus, the aim of some college access programs is often to “fix” underserved students or to remedy their “deficiencies” in preparation for higher education, rather than to recognize and develop the strengths and capital they already possess within themselves and their communities. This aim can be counterproductive, as the marginalization of the knowledge and skills underserved students and their communities do possess and the underlying message that they need to be “fixed” in order to be successful can reinforce students’ perception that higher education is not a space in which they belong (Levinson, 2016).

Challenging the assumptions of deficit-based approaches, Yosso’s (2005) model of community cultural wealth critiqued “the assumption that Students of Color come to the classroom with cultural deficiencies” (p. 70) and instead proposes six community-based forms of capital that can serve as sources of advantage for these students. Similarly, Tuck (2009) critiqued the “damage-centered framework” in which “oppression singularly defines a community” (p. 413), advocating instead for a “desire-centered framework” that recognizes the full and complex humanity of individuals and centers “the hope, the visions, the wisdom of lived lives and communities” (p. 417). Rooted in critical theory, strengths-based approaches recognize and amplify the cultural assets that marginalized individuals and their communities possess. Such approaches reject defining underserved students by what they lack as measured against a dominant norm, and instead center the strengths, knowledge, agency, and aspirations (i.e., social and cultural capital) within these students and their communities. At the same time, however, strengths-based approaches must be cautious not to “ignore the social conditions that give rise to the need for [social and emotional] interventions” (Kirshner, 2015, p. 29) designed to focus on identifying and building upon students’ strengths. College access programs therefore need to consider strengths-based approaches that intentionally develop students’ critical awareness of and agency in addressing structural injustices impacting their lives.

This study explored the impact of a strengths-based approach for enhancing the college-going capital of underserved youth in a college access program housed at a private university in the Southeastern United States. The strengths-based approach we examined was participation in community-based youth participatory action research (YPAR), an approach to research that empowers young people as co-researchers to investigate topics of importance in their lives (Cammarota & Aguilera, 2012; Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Langhout, Collins, & Ellison, 2014; Powers & Allaman, 2012; Scott, Pyne, & Means, 2015; Torre, 2009). Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore how participation in a community-based YPAR project facilitated the college aspirations and perceived development of college-going capital (a subset of cultural and social capital oriented specifically toward the goal of attending college) among youth in a college access program. The primary research questions were (1) How does participation in a YPAR project shape participants’ identification with and sense of responsibility toward their communities? and (2) How might a sense of community responsibility enhance participants’ college aspirations and perceived college-going capital? Understanding the potential of YPAR as an alternative to deficit-oriented and banking approaches to the pedagogy of college access programs can inform the development of programs that more effectively support the college-going aspirations and capital of underserved youth.

The use of YPAR in college access programs helps to empower youth from minoritized racial and economic backgrounds as agents in their own educational journeys. Positioning youth as “central subjects to knowledge production” (Akom, Shah, Nakai, & Cruz, 2016, p. 1293), rather than merely as passive recipients of knowledge produced by “experts” who rarely look or sound like them (Bloom, 2008), YPAR projects can empower youth and increase their confidence (Akom et al., 2016), which may serve them well in successfully navigating the transition to college. Our study provides additional evidence for the ways in which YPAR empowers youth, including recognizing their innate power to change circumstances for themselves and others in their communities around issues of college access and success.

REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

In this literature review, we first focus on the current scholarship and research on how college access programs enhance college-going capital for underserved populations. We then examine literature related to YPAR and how YPAR enhances college-going capital.

COLLEGE ACCESS PROGRAMS AND COLLEGE-GOING CAPITAL

College access programs promote college awareness and attendance for underserved youth, including low-income students and racially and ethnically minorized youth (Bloom, 2008; Perna, 2002; Perna & Swail, 2001; Swail et al., 2012a; Tierney & Hagedorn, 2002). The most well-known college access programs are the federal TRIO programs (Upward Bound, Talent Search, and Student Support Services), which were “designed to help disadvantaged students prepare for and enter higher education” (Perna & Swail, 2001, p. 100) and began in the 1960s (Perna, 2002), as well as the GEAR-UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness through Undergraduate Preparation) programs established by the federal government in 1998 (Perna, 2002). Beyond these federal programs, higher education institutions, non-profit organizations, and state governments have established college access programs, which tend to offer a range of services including college advising counseling, academic support services, and campus visits (Jayakumar, Vue, & Allen, 2013; Perna, 2002; Swail et al., 2012a, 2012b).

Research has documented that college access programs can increase college aspirations and motivation for underserved youth and their families (e.g., Ghazzawi & Jagannathan, 2011; Jayakumar et al., 2013; Means, LaPlante, & Miller Dyce, 2015; Means & Pyne, 2016; Pyne & Means, 2013). For example, Jayakumar and colleagues (2013) found that African American youth participating in a college access program believed the program provided additional resources and support on their pathway to higher education. College access and preparation programs are also positively associated with college attainment and academic achievement (Cahalan & Goodwin, 2014; Strayhorn, 2010). The positive effects of college access programs on college attendance and success suggest that they can enhance the college-going capital of youth who participate in them.

YOUTH PARTICIPATORY ACTION RESEARCH AND COLLEGE-GOING CAPITAL

Rooted in critical theory, action research, and the work of Kurt Lewin and Paulo Freire, participatory action research (PAR) provides the space for individuals to explore social issues impacting their lives and then determine actions to address these issues (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Fine et al., 2004; Powers & Allaman, 2012; Pyne et al., 2013; Torre, 2009). PAR fundamentally requires “deparochialising” of research to reframe research from an activity that only certain professionals with credentials can do to a universal right for people to gain knowledge for the betterment of their lives and communities (Appadurai, 2006, p. 169). Social issues addressed in PAR studies are often rooted in inequities related to racism, classism, sexism, other forms of oppression, and/or an intersection of forms of oppression (e.g., Cahill, 2007; Torre, 2009). Thus, PAR “requires active rather than passive knowledge production” and “takes a critical approach to knowledge” (Scott et al., 2015, p. 140).

While YPAR honors the fundamental principles of PAR, it uses a youth development model to bring youth together to identify, research, and address relevant social issues (Akom, Cammarota, & Ginwright, 2008; Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Chou et al., 2015; Kirshner, 2010; Powers & Allaman, 2012). Adults are sometimes included in YPAR studies to collaborate with youth, but the research and problem-solving processes for addressing the relevant social issues remain youth-centered (Akom et al., 2008; Mirra & Rogers, 2016). Akom and colleagues (2008) argued that “YPAR is more than a research methodology; rather it is simultaneously: a methodology, pedagogy, and a theory of action for creating social justice and social change” (p. 6). YPAR empowers young people as experts in their own right and as change agents to challenge master narratives and address relevant social issues facing youth and their communities that are often ignored by media and society (Akom et al., 2008; Bautista, Bertrand, Morrell, Scorza, & Matthews, 2013; Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Fine, 2009; Mirra & Rogers, 2016; Powers & Allaman, 2012). According to Cammarota and Fine (2008), “YPAR teaches young people that conditions of injustice are produced, not natural; are designed to privilege and oppress; but are ultimately challengeable and thus changeable” (p. 3); thus, social justice praxis is central to YPAR projects.

CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK: PROSOCIAL DEVELOPMENT AND COLLEGE-GOING CAPITAL

Our framework draws upon forms of college-going, social, and cultural capital, including Yosso’s (2005) community cultural wealth, as well as the concept of prosocial development to enhance our understanding of how YPAR may enhance the college-going aspirations and capital of underserved youth.

SOCIAL, CULTURAL, AND COLLEGE-GOING CAPITAL

Numerous researchers have utilized Bourdieu’s (1986) concepts of cultural and social capital to understand college access for underserved student populations (e.g., Bernhardt, 2013; Bloom, 2008; Hill, Bregman, & Andrade, 2015; Means & Pyne, 2016; George Mwangi et al., 2018; Palmer & Maramba, 2015). Per Bourdieu, cultural capital “is related to the class-based socialization of culturally relevant skills, abilities, tastes, preferences, or norms that act as a form of currency in the social realm” (Winkle-Wagner, 2010, p. 5). Bourdieu emphasized how some forms of cultural capital carry power because they can be exchanged “for social rewards such as acceptance, recognition, inclusion, or even social mobility” (Winkle-Wagner, 2010, p. 5). These valued forms of capital are those associated with the dominant (affluent) socioeconomic class, while the forms of cultural capital held by those individuals from lower-standing socioeconomic classes carry less “exchange value” (Levinson, 2016).

Bourdieu acknowledged that although an individual can gain cultural capital through education as well as through one’s family, “it is more difficult to acquire cultural capital only through education” (Winkle-Wagner, 2010, p. 6). More often, Bourdieu argued, educational institutions reward students who already possess valued forms of cultural capital (i.e., those associated with the dominant socioeconomic class), thereby reproducing class-based inequities (Levinson, 2016; Winkle-Wagner, 2010). In recognition of the connection between cultural capital and reproduction of privilege, Yosso (2005) offered a more precise definition of cultural capital as “an accumulation of cultural knowledge, skills and abilities possessed and inherited by privileged groups in society” (p. 76).

Social capital is related to one’s connections and networks that provide access to actual or potential resources and that promote advantage and social mobility (Bourdieu, 1986). Social capital can be provided by one’s peers, family, and community (George Mwangi, 2015; Putnam, 2000; Rios-Aguilar, Kiyama, Gravitt, & Moll, 2011; Yosso, 2005). The people we know and trust in various aspects of our lives can provide and connect us to resources, information, and support as well as establish values that enable our productivity and success in various realms, including educational attainment (Bourdieu, 1986; George Mwangi, 2015; Putnam, 2000; Winkle-Wagner, 2010). Social capital is often inherited, advantages privileged groups in society, and can be produced and reinforced through “occasions” (e.g., social events where one has the opportunity to make connections), “places” (e.g., schools), or “practices” (e.g., “cultural ceremonies”) (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 52). Social and cultural capital are interrelated in that our social capital can help us acquire cultural capital: “Cultural capital could interact and work together with social capital to perpetuate privilege in that one’s social capital, one’s social connections, drives the availability of cultural capital that one acquires and the cultural capital that is recognized in a particular field” (Winkle-Wagner, 2010, p. 13).

As Yosso (2005) described, Bourdieu’s (1986) work asserted that “some communities are culturally wealthy while others are culturally poor,” and she further noted that it “exposes White, middle class culture as the standard” (p. 76). In making this assumption, “the multiple ways cultural resources of other groups also convert into capital are ignored” (Carter, 2003, p. 137). In response, Yosso (2005) proposed a model of community cultural wealth, consisting of “an array of knowledge, skills, abilities and contacts possessed and utilized by Communities of Color to survive and resist macro and micro-forms of oppression” (p. 77). As its name indicates, Yosso’s model centers communities as sources of advantage and support rather than disadvantage, highlighting the ways that communities “can nurture and empower” students from socially marginalized groups (p. 76). Researchers have documented the way in which developing and employing the forms of capital within Yosso’s model have supported the academic success and college-going aspirations of Students of Color (e.g., Jayakumar et al., 2013; Liou, Martinez, & Rotheram-Fuller, 2016).

Familial capital, one of the forms of community cultural wealth included in Yosso’s (2005) model, emphasizes the development of a reciprocal relationship in which students both receive support from and feel a responsibility to contribute toward their communities. From their familia—broadly defined to included immediate and extended family members as well as friends and others within their communities—students “learn the importance of maintaining a healthy connection to our community and its resources” and develop a “commitment to community well being” (Yosso, 2005, p. 79). In this regard, the concept of familial capital, and community cultural wealth more generally, connects with research on adolescents’ prosocial development, which we discuss later.

Researchers such as Bloom (2008) and George Mwangi et al. (2018) have built on the concepts of cultural and social capital to focus upon college-going capital, which describes the forms of cultural and social capital oriented toward the specific goal of accessing college. The forms of social capital subsumed within college-going capital include various social networks that facilitate college access, such as “institutional agents” (e.g., school counselors, college access program staff) (Rios-Aguilar et al., 2011) as well as peers, parents, and non-family community members (Holland, 2010; George Mwangi, 2015; Rios-Aguilar et al., 2011). These social connections can provide forms of cultural capital related to accessing and succeeding in college, “such as the confidence to apply to college, knowledge about how to navigate living in a residence hall, classroom skills (such as note-taking, participating in class discussions, asking questions, and the facility to interact with faculty eectively)” (Means & Pyne, 2016, p. 408). Community-based social networks can serve as a form of college-going capital (Holland, 2010; George Mwangi, 2015). In addition, because social capital necessitates reciprocity (George Mwangi, 2015; Putnam, 2000; Yosso, 2005), it both facilitates and results from prosocial behaviors such as community and civic engagement (George Mwangi, 2015; Putnam, 2000). Based on these findings, we posit that recognizing the social capital within their communities and developing a sense of reciprocity toward those communities can help support youth in achieving their dreams of attending college.

YPAR can connect youth with their communities in an empowering and affirming way. Shamrova and Cummings (2017) reviewed a pool of international studies reporting YPAR outcomes for participating youth, and they found 6 of 45 studies (13%) reported connectedness with community as an outcome: “community-based PAR with youth and children creates a ground for developing and strengthening a sense of connectedness and belonging to the community. … Involvement in PAR gives children and youth a chance to learn what it means to participate in community life and how to engage positively in creating a change” (p. 406). This community connectedness represents a form of social capital, or community cultural wealth (per Yosso, 2005), that can support underserved students in pursuing their educational goals (Welton, 2011).

YPAR can also facilitate the development of forms of cultural capital related to college-going. For example, participating in YPAR helps youth understand how research (a valued academic skill) can be used to advance social justice and empower communities, and it also enhances underserved youth’s efficacy and agency in creating knowledge through research. Therefore, “YPAR plays an instrumental role by giving young people currency in the form of research tools that can be used to gain access to higher education institutions and dominant academic discourse” (Mirra & Rogers, 2016, p. 1263). Additionally, YPAR can help youth learn “tools for intergenerational communication and navigation within adult spaces” (Shamrova & Cummings, 2017, p. 406), and such skills may help underserved youth in successfully accessing college (i.e., college-going capital). Additionally, in a systematic review of 63 studies reporting youth outcomes of YPAR participation, Anyon, Bender, Kennedy, & Dechants (2018) found that YPAR may facilitate the development of other forms of cultural capital such as agency/leadership outcomes (reported in 75% of studies) and academic/career outcomes (reported in 56% of studies).

College-going capital is related to, but conceptually distinct from, the concepts of college readiness and college culture. Arnold, Lu, and Armstrong (2012) define college readiness as “a student’s capacity to enroll at a postsecondary institution, take credit-bearing classes beginning in the first year, earn passing grades in courses, and persist to his or her educational goals” (p. 1). Duncheon (2018) defines college readiness as “compris[ing] three categories of skills and knowledge: (a) cognitive competencies, (b) noncognitive competencies, and (c) college knowledge” (p. 4). Per both definitions, readiness emphasizes the academic preparation needed to successfully complete a postsecondary academic program as well as the skills, attitudes, and knowledge needed to enroll in college; readiness thus overlaps with, yet is broader than, the concept of college-going capital. College-going culture (or college culture) refers to an environment in which the value of and knowledge relating to attending college is “saturated” (Holland & Farmer-Hinton, 2009, p. 26). A college-going culture conveys social and/or institutional support for college-going and can foster the development of students’ college-going capital as well as their higher education aspirations (Holland & Farmer-Hinton, 2009; George Mwangi et al., 2018).

PROSOCIAL DEVELOPMENT

Adolescence is a critical period for prosocial development (Eisenberg, Cumberland, Guthrie, Murphy, & Shepard, 2005), and educating students to recognize and act upon their responsibility as interdependent members of our democratic society is an essential outcome of education at both the college and K-12 levels (Bowman, Brandenberger, Lapsley, Hill, & Quaranto, 2010; Hart, Donnelly, Youniss, & Atkins, 2007; Parks, 2011). Prosocial orientation, which refers to the development of attitudes, dispositions, and values that foster and sustain positive engagement within one’s community and larger society (Brandenberger & Bowman, 2012), and related prosocial behaviors such as volunteering have been found to be positively associated with perspective taking and sympathy/empathy for others (Eisenberg, Carlo, Murphy, & Van Court, 1995), a preference for equitable outcomes (i.e., justice and fairness) over individual competition and gain (Van Lange, 1999), and stronger levels of mental health and well-being (Bowman et al., 2010; Penner, Dovidio, Piliavin, & Schroeder, 2005). Brandenberger and Bowman (2015) assert, “A sense of prosocial purpose may play an important role not only in engaging [college] students in efforts to improve the world around them, but in enhancing their own development and long-term well-being” (p. 331).

Helping youth to see themselves as participating members of a community through their YPAR experiences may help them recognize the capital available within their communities, which Yosso (2005) refers to as community cultural wealth. Additionally, YPAR participation aids the prosocial development of youth by fostering civic engagement and empowering them to work toward social justice for themselves and their communities (Anyon et al., 2018; Mirra, Garcia, & Morrell, 2016; Shamrova & Cummings, 2017). “Children who are sensitized to social justice issues, have a healthy relationship with adults, and feel a sense of belonging to their community are probably more likely to exhibit prosocial behavior and become the agents of change” (Shamrova & Cummings, 2017, p. 407). Thus, by connecting youth with their communities and enhancing their critical consciousness, YPAR can facilitate the development of prosocial orientation among participating youth.

METHODOLOGY

YPAR has the potential to serve as a strengths-based approach that recognizes “students as actors and owners” of their own college-going experiences (Bloom, 2008, p. 6). The purpose of the present research was to explore how participation in a YPAR project facilitated the perceived development of college-going capital among youth in a college access program. Therefore, to be clear, the findings we present here were not derived via participatory action research (PAR) methods; rather, our focus here was to examine the effects of YPAR as an approach for enhancing participants’ perceived college-going capital.

To achieve this purpose, we employed case study methodology, which is useful for addressing “how” and “why” questions, particularly as they pertain to real-life events (Merriam, 1998; Yin, 2009). Rather than divorcing an outcome or set of outcomes from their context, case study methodology enables researchers to examine how a wide range of influences and processes contained within the larger context may have affected the outcome of the case (Merriam, 1998; Yin, 2009). This research utilized an interpretive case study approach (Merriam, 1998), as we sought to examine participants’ experiences with a community-based YPAR project. The YPAR project provides defined boundaries (Cutler, 2004; Merriam, 1998) for the case as the project had defined beginning and end points, a stable group of ten student participants and three instructors who persisted from the project’s start to finish, and a set of component experiences, described next, in which all participants engaged together as a group.

THE CASE

The YPAR project was completed at a university-based college access and success program, Achievement Program (a pseudonym), designed for students with a financial need and/or no family history of college. Achievement Program is housed at Achievement University (a pseudonym), a mid-sized, non-profit private university in the Southeastern United States. Achievement Program’s impetus and continuing aim is to improve the historically low college-going rates of students from seven high schools, including a public charter school, in the county in which the university is located, and it provides support for students and families from the college admission process through college graduation. Students begin the program the summer prior to their 10th grade year of high school, and families (parents, grandparents, siblings, and extended family) are intentionally integrated into the program and services of Achievement Program.

The high school component of the program serves approximately 75 high school students, who participate in three consecutive summer residential programs and year-round programs. During the summer program, students have the opportunity to live in residence halls; take academically rigorous, highly engaging courses from college professors and master high school teachers; participate in service and leadership projects; and learn more about the college admission process through classes, one-on-one support, and college visits. The year-round program includes mentoring, academic coaching, monthly mini-conferences, and family programs. After high school graduation, students continue receiving support through college graduation (e.g., transition to college program, in-person campus visits, workshops to support students with their college success).

PARTICIPANTS AND DESCRIPTION OF THE YPAR PROJECT

All high school 10th-graders in Achievement Program were invited to apply be co-researchers in the YPAR project. The second author spoke with the entire cohort of 10th-graders in the Achievement Program about the YPAR project and also provided a document about the project, emphasizing the opportunity to learn more about being a change agent, collaborate with a team to conduct a research study, and travel to Washington, D.C. for a week for pre-arranged site visits with national organizations focused on college access and success. Students were also told there was no financial cost for participating in the project. The application included a short essay about the student’s interest in the project. Ten students applied and they were all chosen to participate as co-researchers (see Table 1); these are the students we refer to as participants. Four of the participants are Mexican American, two are African American, two identify as multiracial or biracial, and two identify as White. All participants are low-income and first-generation students.

Table 1. Demographic information for student participants.

Pseudonym

Race/Ethnicity

Gender

Amanda

Multiracial

Woman

Carlos

Mexican American

Man

Enrique

Mexican American

Man

Javier

Mexican American

Man

Melissa

African American

Woman

Nicole

White

Woman

Sandra

Mexican American

Woman

Sara

Korean American and White

Woman

Tiffani

White

Woman

Vanessa

African American

Woman


The YPAR project primarily took place between March and July 2014 with the most time-intensive work occurring in June and July 2014, but participants also delivered presentations about their findings and experiences at two education conferences: a statewide education conference in October 2014 and a national education conference in March 2015 (see Figure 1 for the YPAR timeline). The YPAR project gave participants the opportunity to learn about YPAR and intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991); assist in designing a qualitative research study on the barriers and opportunities that first-generation and/or low-income college students face on their pathway to college and during their collegiate experience, focusing on current college students who completed the high school component of Achievement Program; and participate in qualitative data collection and analysis. The participants’ research study is described in a separate paper, including their study design, data collection (e.g., interviewing current college students) and analysis methods.[39_23181.htm_g/00002.jpg]

Figure 1. YPAR Project Timeline.

Participants also engaged in a range of activities and programs intended to complement the YPAR project’s goals and participants’ learning. These included readings focused on college access and persistence and systemic issues related to poverty and social class (e.g., students read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America and A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League), reflection (e.g., journaling about the project’s readings and activities), workshops on topics such as diversity and economic justice, and teambuilding exercises (e.g., participation in an outdoor challenge course). A major part of the project revolved around a weeklong trip to Washington, D.C. to learn about how national higher education policy and professional organizations support college access and persistence for underrepresented and underserved students. During the meetings with national organizations, participants had opportunities to share their research as well as their lived experiences related to college access and persistence barriers.

Throughout the project, participants took part in community engagement work at the local Boys and Girls Club. At the end of the YPAR project, participants designed and implemented college awareness activities for the youth at the Boys and Girls Club. Participants developed their college awareness activities based on data from the YPAR project as well as experiences during the site visits to the Boys and Girls Club. Additionally, the participants did a presentation for the community during the Achievement Program’s summer residential program to offer insights into their work on the five-month project. Participants’ families, three local school board members, and a local high school principal attended the presentation. Participants presented on the following: (a) the context for the project; (b) the rationale for YPAR; (c) the context for their research study and key findings; (d) their visit to Washington, D.C.; and (e) their work with the Boys and Girls Club. After the presentation, the audience had the opportunity to ask questions and/or offer comments. Answering audience questions gave participants a platform to share recommendations and feedback with school board members and the high school principal based on their study findings and YPAR experiences.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS

Case studies rely on a variety of data sources and collection strategies to provide a rich picture of the phenomenon or subject of study (Yin, 2009). The primary data for this case study were drawn from three one-on-one, semi-structured interviews with each of the ten participants, occurring near the beginning, middle, and end of the YPAR project. Building upon work from Scott and colleagues (2015), the interviews addressed four major themes: (a) participants’ current knowledge about research, (b) participants’ feelings about research generally and their participation as co-researchers through the YPAR project, (c) academic and personal characteristics participants felt they developed through the research experience, and (d) the connections participants made between their participation in the YPAR project and their future college aspirations and plans.

The primary interview data were supplemented with photo elicitation and one focus group with all ten participants. Photo elicitation is a data collection method that integrates photographs (pre-selected or participant-generated) into a research interview (Harper, 2002; O’Brien, 2013). Photo elicitation provides data that can allow for a deeper understanding of a social phenomenon (Harper, 2002). Participants were given a disposable camera and asked by the adult researchers to spend up to three days taking photographic representations of their perceived barriers and opportunities for college access. During the focus group, each participant was asked to share information about one photograph and how it reflected their experiences navigating their pathway to higher education. After each person shared their photograph, the focus group centered on the following questions about the photographs: (a) collective perceived barriers to and opportunities for college access, (b) how the photographs can educate others about their collective college-going experiences, and (c) action they can take as students to address collective barriers.

All interviews and the focus group were transcribed verbatim, and the discussions on the photo elicitation project were embedded in the interview transcripts. The adult researchers who facilitated the YPAR project (i.e., the authors of this paper) began data analysis by developing an individual case study for each participant. We then proceeded with an open coding process, which “allows for exploration of the ideas and meaning that are contained in raw data. While engaging in open coding, the researcher creates codes or concepts” (DeCuir-Gunby, Marshall, & McCulloch, 2011, pp. 138-139). We worked individually on the open coding process and developed a preliminary codebook with a definition and example for each code. We then met to develop a common codebook. Once we had a common codebook, we assigned two people per transcript to apply the codebook. We then met again to discuss the connections among the codes, which led to the development of our themes addressing the impact of YPAR participation on participants’ development of college-going capital.

POSITIONALITY OF AUTHORS

The authors brought our own experiences and positionalities to the project. Although the first author, a White woman, is neither a first-generation nor low-income college student, she worked with Achievement Program to support the YPAR project. Her research as well as her personal values center issues of social justice, and she has developed an undergraduate course focused on U.S. higher education’s role in fostering, as well as impeding, social mobility and equity for various social groups. This was her first YPAR project. The second author is a Black man who was a first-generation and low-income college student. At the time of data collection, he was employed full-time by Achievement Program. He has also worked in collaboration with youth on three other YPAR projects, and his current research aims to enhance mechanisms and programs that support students’ pathways to higher education. The third author, a White woman, is an alumna of Achievement Program and participated in a similar YPAR project during high school. At the time of the study, she was a first-generation, low-income student in her third year of college.

We recognize that our positionalities place us in strong connection to the program, participants, and the data. These connections, as well as our shared belief in the value of YPAR and college access programs, likely influenced our study design and interpretation of findings (Mirra & Rogers, 2016). However, we view this as an opportunity versus a “threat” to validity given that our close relationships with participants as co-researchers for the YPAR project and continued relationships after its conclusion gave us a depth of insight into participants’ experiences and growth that we would not have otherwise had. The fact that we were embedded within the case as instructors enabled us to become deeply familiar with the ten participating students and their stories, enhancing our ability to understand and interpret their experiences in light of our two research questions and strengthening the internal validity (or credibility) of this study (Merriam, 1998). While our unique positions relative to the study may limit the reproducibility of our findings, as Stake (1995) notes, this is not a limitation but rather a strength: “Qualitative case study is highly personal research. … The quality and utility of the research is not based on its reproducibility but on whether or not the meanings generated, by the researcher or the reader, are valued” (p. 135).

The different positionalities of the three adult researchers enabled us to challenge each other’s preconceived notions and data interpretations. This theory triangulation (Stake, 1995) adds support for the trustworthiness of our study. Throughout the process of facilitating the YPAR project and collecting data, we met regularly in person to reflect on how we could improve our data collection processes and be mindful of power dynamics that could restrict participants’ empowerment and voice. For example, we discussed strategies to better support participants who were more reserved and less outspoken during the YPAR project. Throughout the process of analyzing our data, we spoke regularly by phone, and during these conversations we discussed how our individual positionalities might be shaping our interpretations or leading us to make assumptions about the data. We also ensured that each transcript was coded by at least two of the three researchers so that we could discuss and address how our different perspectives influenced the meaning we made of the data. Such conversations led us to make multiple revisions to our codebook as well as to our initial memos about findings.

We chose to embark upon this study because we believe in YPAR and its role in empowering underserved students to achieve their educational goals. In this regard, we have much in common with previous research on YPAR and student outcomes (Mirra & Rogers, 2016). We acknowledge, however, that such a positive orientation toward our research subject may have led us to have an optimistic orientation toward our findings. Nonetheless, we did not dismiss or ignore the challenges in engaging in YPAR with Achievement Program students. One of the challenges we faced was in finding outlets for participants to share the results of their YPAR project. While they did present their results to a local principal and school board members, some of the local educational stakeholders we had invited were unable to attend, which disappointed the participants and was an important lesson for us (the adult researchers) regarding the need to establish “the conditions and community in which YPAR can be most successful” (Mirra et al., 2016, p. 41). Another challenge we faced was the short timeframe in which participating students had to develop, execute, and present the results of their YPAR project. As a result, we (the adult researchers) chose to accelerate some of the early phases of the project by predetermining the broad topic (or “research frame,” per Mirra et al., 2016) for participants to focus on as well as the methods of data collection. Additionally, we chose the Boys and Girls Club as a collaborator for the YPAR project; however, participants developed and implemented the college awareness activities of their choice. We struggled with this decision as we recognized that doing so compromised the participatory goals of YPAR, and yet we also felt that participating in a somewhat abridged YPAR experience would be more valuable to the youth than not participating in YPAR at all. In addition to the short timeframe, the majority of the YPAR project occurred during Achievement Program’s four-week, summer residential program, including the week-long visit to Washington, D.C. During the summer residential program, student participants take two academically-rigorous courses and a college planning course during the week; each course is 2.5 hours. Due to the time-intensive nature of the YPAR project, the YPAR project encompassed two course blocks during the first two weeks of the summer residential program (5 hours/day during the week), the entire third week in order to travel to Washington, D.C., and all three course blocks during the final week (7.5 hours/day during the final week). Given the schedule, a few participants expressed concerns about being isolated from the other Achievement Program students who were not participating in the YPAR project, which may be the rationale for only ten participants deciding to participate.

FINDINGS

Through participating in a community-based YPAR project, the ten participants moved from perceiving education as primarily an individual pursuit with instrumental benefits (e.g., getting good grades, building their résumés to get into college) toward seeing education, and particularly research, as enabling them to discover and build community. For many participants, the YPAR project helped them develop empathy and a sense of solidarity with others from similar backgrounds as well as a responsibility toward the communities to which they belong. Some participants went deeper, connecting this sense of solidarity with an understanding of inequities around issues of college access and developing intentions to use their voices to call attention to inequities they have seen and experienced within their communities. The connections participants began to make between education, empowerment, and community suggested that the YPAR project helped to facilitate participants’ prosocial development, and the communities with which they began to identify with and feel reciprocity toward represent an important source of capital that can support their college-going aspirations.

Below we discuss evidence drawn from our interviews with participants. We begin by summarizing the motivations or interests participants described as shaping their initial decision to participate in the project. We then present evidence to document the specific ways in which the YPAR project shaped the students who participated in it, guided by our two research questions. First we discuss how it helped participants to connect education with community, particularly how their experiences during the project led them to identify themselves as belonging to a broader community of college-going students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds. Then we share how, by facilitating participants’ identification with and sense of responsibility toward communities of individuals like themselves, the project empowered participants toward prosocial purpose, shaping their desires and future intentions to work for and with their communities.

INITIAL MOTIVATIONS FOR PARTICIPATING IN THE YPAR PROJECT

Participants expressed two broad reasons for initially choosing to participate in the YPAR project: (1) enhancing their own qualifications for college (self-focused, instrumental benefits) and (2) wanting to help other students facing barriers to college (other-focused, or prosocial, benefits). We use “instrumental” here in the sense of perceiving their education to be a means to achieving an end; for the participants in our study, the end to which they aspired was attending college. Seven of the ten participants hoped that the skills they gained through participating in the project, as well as the “résumé boost” it would provide, would enhance their qualifications and competitiveness for college admissions. As Melissa noted, “This [experience] will look really good on my college application, because who can say they did a research project and they’re 16 years old?” A few participants identified specific skills they hoped to gain through participating in the project; for example, Javier discussed developing leadership qualities, while Amanda mentioned learning to act professionally during her future college admissions interviews.

Although these self-focused, instrumental motivations predominated, a few participants saw the YPAR project as an opportunity to help others facing barriers to college access and success. For example, Sandra commented:

I feel like we’re going to help a lot of people by answering so many questions about poverty and why is that holding us, so many people back. … Because I know I’m part of [poverty] too. And I want to know why sometimes it’s so hard to get out of it. And why there are so many barriers for people like us. (Interview, May 2014)

These participants sought to highlight the experiences and voices of students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds and to enhance their own understanding of issues around college access and success, and were motivated to participate by the hope of contributing to positive change for students like themselves.

We chose to examine participants’ reasons for participating in the YPAR project to establish a basis for comparison in addressing the first research question guiding this study: how participation in a YPAR project shapes participants’ identification with and sense of responsibility toward their communities. Most participants did not initially express other-focused, or prosocial, motivations for participating in the YPAR project; instead, their initial motivation for participating in the project tended to center on how it would help them achieve their dream of attending college. Only a few participants discussed other-focused reasons for initially choosing to participate in the project. However, in contrast to their initial motivations, all participants discussed how their participation in the YPAR project helped them discover membership in a community of students like themselves. For some participants, this discovery of community membership was accompanied by a sense of responsibility toward that community. We next discuss the two ways in which participation in the YPAR project shaped the ten participants, to answer our first research question.

YPAR IMPACT: CONNECTING EDUCATION AND RESEARCH WITH COMMUNITY

One of the impacts that participation in the YPAR project had upon participants was in helping them to see the connection between educational endeavors—particularly research—and building community. Participants identified three ways in which their experiences in the project led them to make this connection. First, they came to discover solidarity with others from similar backgrounds, identifying with and developing a sense of responsibility toward this newly discovered community. Second, participants recounted how their project experiences led them to realize that adults valued their perspectives as students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds, and that their first-hand knowledge of the challenges they have faced on their own college-going journeys provided them a form of expertise they previously had not recognized within themselves. Third, the project helped some participants to see issues of college access and success from a broader, societal perspective, looking beyond the individual obstacles they had faced to begin to identify systemic inequities.

Discovering Solidarity with Others

The primary way by which participants came to connect research and community was in discovering that they were not isolated in their experiences as college-going students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds, but rather that their backgrounds granted them membership within broader communities toward which they had a responsibility. The YPAR project fostered solidarity in two ways. First, it helped participants recognize the need to develop caring interpersonal relationships to provide mutual support in overcoming the barriers to college access and success they share. Second, some participants came to recognize their membership in a broader, more abstract community of students facing barriers on their college-going journeys, suggesting that they were beginning to understand the systemic nature of inequities in accessing higher education.

By selecting a subgroup of ten students who shared an interest in and commitment to research and deeper learning from within the larger Achievement Program cohort, and then having those students engage in a series of intensive learning experiences over the course of five months (see Figure 1), the YPAR project fostered solidarity among participants. Nicole described this solidarity with the “D.C. group” (the name student participants gave themselves to reflect their trip to Washington, D.C. as a part of the YPAR project): “I would say one thing I’ve learned is that people in the D.C. group, how they’re there for me. … I think that bond will stay with us.” For Nicole, this sense of solidarity began during an earlier activity in May when participants were asked to reflect on their positionalities relative to poverty, which led her to feel closer to the other participants and to be more thoughtful: “I feel like you never know what someone’s going through, whether it be like us in the D.C. [group], people in general at the Boys and Girls Club, or the meetings, or people in D.C., or in [county in which she lives].” Vanessa expressed a similar sentiment about the sense of solidarity, commenting, “I definitely thought that we’d get to know more about each other, but not [at] this deeper level. Because I know now that we’re going to be friends forever.” For Vanessa, this sense of solidarity became more evident during the week-long trip to Washington, D.C. when participants were away from their families, friends, and other Achievement Program participants, commenting, “I think in the beginning I wasn’t acquainted with anyone [referring to other YPAR project participants]. I didn’t really talk to anyone. We weren’t really close friends, but once D.C. came, everyone was interacting. That’s all we have . . . each other.”

Some participants’ interest in developing caring and supportive interpersonal relationships extended beyond their immediate peers in the YPAR project group, suggesting a deepened understanding of who comprised their communities and how to support these individuals. For example, Melissa discussed how the collaboration with and visitations to the Boys and Girls Club helped her recognize her own membership in a community of minoritized students from low-income families “like me”: “One of the reasons I liked Boys and Girls Club is because somehow I can relate to the kids, because they do come from low-income [families].” Overall, these participants felt that the YPAR project helped them to appreciate the value of building communities as sources of caring and mutual support.

Researching the challenges and opportunities experienced by Achievement Program students attending college, as well as learning about national policy initiatives around college access and success during the site visits in Washington, D.C., helped participants begin to understand that the college access barriers they faced were not individualistic but pervasive barriers. As a result, participants began to identify with a broader community of other college-going students from similar backgrounds as comprising part of their own community, representing the second way in which participants discovered solidarity through the YPAR project. Tiffani commented on how interviewing Achievement Program students currently in college to collect data for the YPAR project helped her discover solidarity with students who have successfully faced challenges similar to her own: “the insight into somebody else’s life kind of connected [with me], because they had some problems that I could understand from what I’ve been through.” In addition, a couple of participants discovered solidarity in a more abstract way through reading and reflecting on A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League (Suskind, 1998), a book that chronicles the college-going journey of an African American man (Cedric) who grew up in poverty in Washington, D.C. and graduated from Brown University. For example, Vanessa felt she could relate to Cedric and learned from him the importance of building relationships with other people to support her future success.

In discovering solidarity with a broader community, participants also developed a growing sense of responsibility toward others to address shared barriers by raising awareness of and advocating for their shared needs. Amanda, for example, commented on how planning a half-day workshop to educate children in the local Boys and Girls Club about college motivated her to inspire future generations of students from low-income families to attend college:

If I see little kids or something, I could just bring up college, slowly drift in the conversation and be like, “What do you guys want to do?” and then talk to them about [college]. And then be like, “Don’t be afraid to do anything, because you can go places.” And just try to convince them and help them out so when they get older they’ll be like, “Oh, I’m going through [Achievement Program],” and, “Oh, I’m going to college, don’t worry about me,” that kind of stuff. (Interview, July 2014)

Some participants, such as Nicole, were inspired to volunteer in their communities due to the neighborly responsibility they began to feel as a result of their experiences with the Boys and Girls Club:

I always saw the Boys and Girls Club bus come and pick up the kids at my school [but] I never really paid attention to who got on the bus. . . . I think I’m seriously considering going [to the Boys and Girls Club] sometime this summer and throughout the year. (Interview, July 2014)

A few participants made comments suggesting that discovering solidarity with others enhanced their openness to different perspectives and experiences of others. For example, Sara related how analyzing stories of others’ college-going experiences during the research portion of the YPAR project reminded her that everyone shares the need for support in facing their challenges:

We’re always taught that yeah, everybody’s different, you know? Everybody goes through different struggles. But I think going through the data and stuff [I realized] that even though they are different, there are still similarities in things that people struggle with, either if it’s financially, or racial discrimination, or something like that. There’s still ways that people can relate to each other. Even if maybe it’s not in the same context, I guess. But people can connect with each other because of those things. (Interview, July 2014)

Sara’s comments suggest that she came to understand how important communities are in supporting individuals in navigating their struggles. Similarly, Vanessa discussed developing an understanding for those who have not attended college, after gaining a more nuanced perspective of the challenges many people face in accessing and completing college: “… there’s always a struggle going to college and that people, even though they don’t go straight out of high school, they didn’t do anything wrong, they’re not failures or anything. It’s just that they had a struggle.” Through their experiences as co-researchers in the YPAR project, participants enhanced their ability to work in solidarity with others to improve college access and success for low-income and first-generation students like themselves.

Feeling Heard by Adults

Several participants discussed how the YPAR project helped them to realize—possibly for the first time—that adults wanted to hear what they had to say. The participants who discussed feeling their voices were heard by adults primarily did so in the context of participants’ visits to several national higher education policy and professional organizations in Washington, D.C. Sandra thought the meetings with staff within these organizations would be talks and limited interaction between staff and the participants. However, the staff within these organizations provided an opportunity for students to share their perspectives and experiences with the YPAR project. Sandra commented on how the staff “treated us like we were valuable and not like just any other kid[s].”

Enrique discussed how meaningful it felt to be taken seriously by representatives of the policy organizations and included in the national conversation about college access and success after often feeling excluded from conversations that directly influence young people:

Meeting with the organizations and how they listened to us or made time for us, having our voices heard, or just being part of the big issue or topic [was meaningful]. . . . I know a lot of my peers feel like they’re not included in the stuff that matters and usually . . . they don’t have a say in what affects us directly. (Interview, July 2014)

Furthermore, knowing that adults cared about and would listen to what they had to say helped the students recognize that they could contribute to conversations on college access and success and held expertise by virtue of their lived experiences. For example, Carlos appreciated that the national policy and professional organizations valued his insight: “[The organizations’ staff members] kept asking us questions on different situations. … It made me feel like people actually care about what our opinions are.” Amanda felt that her experiences in the YPAR project would lend her a legitimacy she previously lacked, ensuring that adults (especially teachers) would take her perspectives more seriously: “… telling the teachers I’ve done a research study, and telling them I’ve been to meetings in Washington, D.C. They’d probably treat me like I’m more serious, and what I have to say they should probably listen to …”

Overall, sharing their perspectives with national policy and professional organizations and having those perspectives heard and seriously considered by the organizations’ staff members empowered participants by helping them recognize the expertise they possessed as college-going students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds. The validation they received helped to foster participants’ desire to use their voices for others, as we discuss in more detail shortly.

Gaining an understanding of college access and success. One of the goals of Achievement

Program is to help students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds develop college knowledge to ensure their success in applying for and completing college. Students participating in the YPAR project did discuss increasing their understanding of college access and success through the project. What was notable, however, was how some participants discussed these issues from a broader, less individualistic, perspective, suggesting that they were beginning to grasp the systemic forces and patterns of inequity shaping college access and success for students like themselves.


Two participants discussed how the group’s visits to national higher education policy and professional organizations led them to realize that they are not alone in their challenges regarding college access and success, and that improving college attendance and completion rates for low-income and first-generation students is a national policy imperative. Enrique, for example, connected this realization with his newfound solidarity with others who share his circumstances:


I learned more knowledge about what’s actually out there about college access and success. How there’s a lot of barriers and opportunities, but also a lot of people don’t realize that there’s a lot of behind the scenes work, that people [in national organizations] are actually out there trying to make an effort. … It makes me feel like there’s actually support out there for us, that even though we don’t see it, they are trying to help us. And I feel that just giving back to the community would be something I learned. (Interview, July 2014)

Enrique’s comments suggest that he feels a sense of empowerment knowing that others are advocating for students like him on a national level, and he transforms that sense of empowerment into an intention to give back, presumably to help students coming behind him in addressing the barriers they may face. Nicole also commented on how meeting with national organizations helped her to realize that improving college access and success involves not merely addressing individual challenges, but rather is a series of organized initiatives addressing educational equity: “I guess I didn’t realize how connected things were. … I never really thought about how much work goes into, one, making [Achievement Program], and two, just helping education in general.” While only some participants discussed developing a deeper understanding of societal forces shaping college access and success for low income and first-generation students as a result of their experiences in the YPAR project, those who did made connections between education and community that suggested they had begun to develop a critical lens through which to see structural issues of college access. Furthermore, for at least one participant (Enrique), making these connections fueled a desire to give back what he had learned to benefit others, suggesting the development of prosocial purpose.


YPAR Impact: Feeling Empowered toward Prosocial Purpose


The solidarity with and responsibility toward their communities participants discovered through their YPAR experiences empowered them toward prosocial purpose—that is, it shaped their desires and future intentions to improve opportunities and equity for themselves and others. Participants identified two ways in which the project empowered them to work for and with others in community. First, they felt the project helped them find confidence in exercising their voices and, for some, formed an intention to use their voices to advocate for others. Second, participants relayed how the project expanded their conception of research from something that was impersonal, irrelevant, and “boring” to a means of connecting with others, building community, and surfacing underrepresented perspectives. While this empowerment toward prosocial purpose did not necessarily resemble resistance (as defined, for example, by Akom et al., 2016), it nonetheless suggests that participants may have begun developing a foundation upon which to build future resistance as they began to understand the potential of research and their own voices for “transforming social and material conditions and affecting real world change” (p. 1291).


Finding confidence in exercising my voice. One of the ways in which the YPAR project transformed participants was by helping them find confidence in exercising their voices. Several participants felt their project experiences heightened their confidence in using their voices to establish interpersonal connections, enabling them to both give and receive support from those within their newly discovered communities. As Carlos noted, “I pretty much improved on my social skills … with this research project, with the other nine [participants], I feel like we became a little closer, and I became more open to them.” Some mentioned other ways in which the project helped them feel more comfortable exercising their voices. For example, Javier discussed how analyzing the data gave him greater confidence in expressing his ideas: “I really don’t speak to anybody [about] the ideas I have … [but with] this project, I started getting ideas or helping [to] create ideas, like on the topics from the data analysis.” Enrique felt that the project facilitated his ability to be a leader: “I stepped out of my comfort zone. I don’t like talking in front of a lot of people, but I feel I could handle it now and take maybe more leadership roles.” When asked what helped him feel more comfortable taking on leadership roles, Enrique commented on how the research team was a supportive community that provided opportunities for growth and development. Empowered by their new confidence in exercising their voices, Javier and Enrique may be more effective at building supportive community among their peers as they go to college.


A few participants made more direct connections between gaining confidence in exercising their voices and using that confidence to speak for and with others to achieve prosocial ends. Carlos provided a powerful example at his final interview, during which he discussed speaking to a staff member of one of the organizations in Washington, D.C.:


I was talking about the different budgets that our schools have and where does the money go to. Like in my school they bought a TV that they don’t even use, and I asked [one of principals], “So why didn’t they just redirect that money to something else, something better, like textbooks?” And she said, “Well, that’s why you’re there. You should have let your voice be heard.” You should try to convince [leaders] yourself because you can’t rely on big name [national policy] organizations all the time. They can help you most of the time, but not on every little matter. So basically if you get enough people, enough youth, you can convince older people that you really do want to have your voices heard and your points of view matter to them. (Interview, July 2014)


Carlos indicated that prior to participating in the YPAR project, he would not have felt empowered to advocate for the needs of students like himself to educational leaders; as a result of the project, however, he gained confidence in the value of his perspectives and recognized the responsibility he has to use his voice in solidarity with others. He also attributed his newfound confidence, and the importance of exercising his voice to address issues facing minoritized student populations, to the national organizations the group met with in Washington, D.C.: “All of them kept saying that they want our voices to be heard, our points of view as minority and underrepresented students.” Carlos’s comments illustrate the significant role educational leaders have in empowering young people by creating space for their voices.


Discovering how research can benefit others. The chief goal of YPAR is to use research as a means to empower youth to advocate for their own and their communities’ interests (Cammarota & Fine, 2008; Mirra et al., 2016; Powers & Allaman, 2012). Participants discussed coming to appreciate this prosocial purpose of research as a result of their participation as co-researchers in the YPAR project. This newfound appreciation of the potential for research to benefit others led some participants to express interest in engaging in research in the future.


Many participants discussed how the experiences in which they engaged during the YPAR project, especially the research component, altered their understanding of the value and utility of research. Vanessa summarized how her perspective on research changed:


This [YPAR] research is more important than what I thought research was in the past. Because before, in school, they don’t really tell you why you’re doing it; they just tell you to do it. And now there’s a purpose. You know what you’re doing it for, to figure out what can be done about low-income students and the opportunities they [have to] get to college, and access, and all that stuff. (Interview, July 2014)


Other participants discussed how the project helped them see that research could be personally meaningful and therefore interesting in contrast to their previous experiences with research in school, which they felt were disconnected from their own lives. Melissa, for example, discussed how she “could see myself” engaging in research to surface different perspectives on college access and success, a relevant and meaningful topic for her: “I feel like I could [research] something like peoples’ views of college. … [Interviewer: Before this project, could you have seen yourself saying that?] No, because I was like, ‘Research is boring.’”


Some participants indicated they would consider doing research in the future due to a new appreciation for the utility of research for improving their own and others’ lives. After completing the YPAR project, Enrique shared a new appreciation for the purpose of research: “to change something for the better.” Through the YPAR project, “we’re letting people know the barriers and opportunities that they may have not known, and then maybe others will be inspired to try to fix or try to help out with the barriers.” His comment about research’s potential to bring about social transformation illustrates how the YPAR project helped participants recognize the power they hold within themselves to improve their own and others’ lives.


In connecting research with prosocial purpose, Enrique exemplifies the way in which YPAR can empower students to commit to improving their communities. Similarly, Sandra shared how her project experiences led her to consider new educational and career goals:


I might just want to go [research] cultures in different countries or maybe ... [before working with the] Boys and Girls Club I didn’t realize how much I love kids and I like talking to kids and interacting with them. So I don’t know, I might change my mind. I might go into the education field or something like that. (Interview, July 2014)


Overall, one of the most powerful impacts the YPAR project had on participants was in helping them recognize the power of research to illuminate the inequities and challenges faced by others like themselves in order to effect change for their communities. As Mirra et al. (2016) state, “When youth become researchers through YPAR, the possibilities of what research looks like are challenged and oftentimes shattered” (p. 82). Research is also a valued academic skill, particularly in the higher education setting, and thus developing skill in conducting research may represent a form of college-going capital (Mirra & Rogers, 2016).


DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS


Through their participation in the YPAR project, the ten participants showed evidence of beginning to understand that although the college-going barriers they have faced are systemic, they hold power to challenge those barriers and effect positive change, congruent with Cammarota and Fine’s (2008) definition of YPAR. Some participants also discussed how the YPAR project helped them to recognize the need to use their voices to speak for the needs of themselves and their community and to gain confidence in using their voices for this purpose. The use of YPAR in college access programs helps to empower youth from minoritized racial and economic backgrounds as agents in their own educational journeys. By positioning youth as “central subjects to knowledge production” (Akom et al., 2016, p. 1293), YPAR develops participants’ agency and confidence in exercising their own voices to advocate for themselves and their communities (Akom et al., 2016; Anyon et al., 2018; Mirra & Rogers, 2016; Shamrova & Cummings, 2017), which may aid them in successfully navigating the transition to college and thus serve as a form of college-going capital. Our study provides additional evidence for the ways in which YPAR empowers youth, including recognizing their innate power to change circumstances for themselves and others around issues of college access and success.


Participating in YPAR also enabled participants to recognize their connections with and responsibility toward others in their communities. By facilitating participants’ ability to connect educational pursuits such as research with their newly developed sense of community solidarity, the project empowered them to work to improve college access and success for other low-income and first-generation students. Our study demonstrates how community-based YPAR can help students recognize the wealth and resources within their communities—that is, community cultural wealth—rather than seeing their communities as pathological and “holding them back” (Yosso, 2005). One of the key challenges students from underserved backgrounds often face in accessing and thriving in college is the tacit assumption of many well-meaning educational professionals that such students cannot be successful unless they leave their families, communities, and cultures behind, depriving students of one of the most important sources of support available to them (Guiffrida, 2006; Lee & Kramer, 2013; Palmer, Davis, & Maramba, 2011). Instead, participants in this study came to identify their communities as resources and also began to develop a sense of responsibility toward those communities, particularly in regards to advocating for the needs of college-going students like themselves. The combination of enhanced community connectedness and empowerment/agency development present within YPAR projects “work together in order to give children and youth an opportunity to become agents of change within their own communities” (Shamrova & Cummings, 2017, p. 406). Our results suggest the possibility that including community-based youth empowerment approaches such as YPAR in a college access program may help underrepresented youth “activate and mobilize” (Rios-Aguilar et al., 2011) the college-going capital available to them within their communities to support their college-going aspirations (Holland, 2010; George Mwangi, 2015).


YPAR is thus one promising pedagogical strategy by which college access programs can move away from a “fix the student”-style deficit model to a more empowering model that honors the capital and expertise of the students and communities they serve, which in turn promises to better support students from underrepresented racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds in accessing and succeeding in higher education. Our study provides evidence for how incorporating community-based YPAR into college access programs can empower youth from underserved populations as agents of their college-going journeys by connecting them with the social forms of college-going capital located within their communities. As Welton (2011) notes, participating in YPAR “helped students understand how they could both be empowered by and have power over their educational pathways” (p. 4).


This study also extends the literature on how YPAR, as a “methodology, pedagogy, and a theory of action” (Akom et al., 2008, p. 6), facilitates underserved students’ development of cultural forms of college-going capital. Per Bloom (2008), the goal of the YPAR project was to “provid[e] experiences in which the students discover answers for themselves” and which “engage them as subjects and inquirers, and allow them to build knowledge through their own experience” (p. 6). By developing students’ research skills and helping them to see the connection between research and community advocacy, YPAR can develop the college-going capital of participating youth (Mirra & Rogers, 2016). Our findings complement previous research that documents how students gain other forms of college-going capital through participation in a YPAR project, such as collaborative and communication skills (Anyon et al., 2018; Langhout et al., 2014; Powers & Allaman, 2012; Scott et al., 2015).


This study has important implications for college access programs designed to serve local communities. First, Bloom (2008) argued that the predominant college access curriculum does not empower underserved “students as actors and owners of their own transition process” (p. 6); rather, it


tends to talk at (i.e., giving motivational speeches and showing earnings charts of college graduates), or give lists to (e.g., having students page through dense college guidebooks), rather than asking students what they are wondering or are worried about, or providing experiences in which the students discover answers for themselves. (p. 5)


In contrast, the present study documents how YPAR can develop and enhance students’ college-going capital through recognizing connections and responsibilities to others in their communities. By providing a relevant and meaningful experience through which participants could discover the strengths possessed by students from backgrounds similar to their own (i.e., low-income and first-generation) within a space where they could share their “critical expertise” (Fine, 2009, p. 2), the YPAR project empowered the ten participants as agentic actors in their own college-going journeys. As Bruna, Farley, McNelly, Sellers, and Johnson (2017) assert in their review of college promise programs (one form of college access programs),


Acknowledging the contexts of implementation—homes, schools, communities—as possessing their own repositories of knowledge that interact with the promise as a part of it, not apart from it, is how the university can affirm an engagement orientation to the communities it serves. (p. 75)


By incorporating YPAR into their programming, college access programs honor their local communities and the students’ roles within them.


Because this was not a longitudinal study, we cannot conclude whether or how the college-going capital participants gained through their YPAR experience will help them to be successful in accessing and succeeding in college. Nonetheless, participants perceived that their YPAR experiences had helped them recognize their solidarity with and responsibility toward their communities. This deeper community identification may serve as a form of college-going capital for them to draw upon as they continue on their educational journeys into and through college. Existing research supports the participants’ perceptions, documenting a positive relationship between the development of social forms of college capital and academic persistence and success (Palmer et al., 2011; Palmer & Maramba, 2015; Strayhorn, 2010). While the focus of the present study was not on how YPAR can facilitate participants’ development of critical consciousness, some participants did show evidence of coming to understand the pervasive and systemic nature of the inequities they and other students like them encounter on their college-going journeys.


These findings also have implications for secondary schools and staff. First, findings showed that the participants found solidarity with those who faced similar barriers to them. Schools can foster an experience like this by providing opportunities for students to share about their own experience and allowing them to find commonalities with each other as a method of building community and solidarity. Additionally, the participants found value in the ability to speak with college students or graduates who had gone through similar experiences. This could be replicated by providing youth with opportunities to hear from and interact with graduates of their high schools.


Second, the project helped some participants see issues of college access and success from a broader, societal perspective, looking beyond the individual obstacles they had faced to begin to identify systemic inequities. Schools have an opportunity to draw connections between the barriers that their students are facing and systemic inequities that face society on a larger scale. Incorporating this type of discussion into curricula may aid youth in understanding that the barriers they face are related to systemic inequities and that there are people who are actively working to alleviate these inequities.


Given the evidence our study provides for the positive impact community-based YPAR can have on facilitating the ability of underserved youth to recognize and develop college-going capital, college access program professionals should consider how to incorporate YPAR projects into their curricula. We also recognize that YPAR requires college access professionals and other educators to consider how to re-conceptualize who has expertise and to trouble issues of power and privilege in order for youth to recognize their own critical expertise in educational spaces; as the adults, we had to learn how to step back and allow participants to grapple with and address challenges experienced during the YPAR project. Ultimately our hope is that this research will contribute to ongoing scholarly and practical discussions not only about how to best support underserved students in their preparation for higher education, but also about how to empower young people to exercise agency and capitalize upon the college-going capital and strengths they and their communities already possess.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 1, 2020, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23181, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:11:29 PM

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  • Tara D. Hudson
    Kent State University
    E-mail Author
    TARA D. HUDSON is assistant professor in the Higher Education Administration program at Kent State University. Her research focuses on two broad areas: college students’ prosocial development, particularly resulting from community engagement and interactional diversity, and the experiences of underrepresented and marginalized populations along their educational and career trajectories. Recent publications include “Developing the Moral Self: College Students’ Understandings of Living a Moral or Ethical Life,” in Journal of College and Character, and “Becoming a Legitimate Scientist: Science Identity of Postdocs in STEM Fields,” in Review of Higher Education.
  • Darris Means
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    DARRIS R. MEANS is an associate professor in the College Student Affairs Administration and Student Affairs Leadership programs at the University of Georgia. His research focuses on college access and success for minoritized student populations. Recent publications include “Crucial Support, Vital Aspirations: The College and Career Aspirations of Rural Black and Latinx Middle School Students in a Community- and Youth-Based Leadership Program,” in Journal of Research in Rural Education, and “Finding my Way: Perceptions of Institutional Support and Belonging in Low-Income, First-Generation, First-Year College Students,” in Journal of College Student Development.
  • Elizabeth Tish
    Stanford University
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH TISH is a MA student in Policy, Organization, and Leadership Studies at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education. She is a first generation college graduate, and is interested in expanding college access opportunities for low-income communities.
 
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