Advisors can help you find your path to success

Advisors are an integral part of college success for all students, but not all students are aware of what advisors can offer them. Jennifer Kerwin and June Parra are advisors for the College of Health & Social Sciences (CHSS) at San Francisco State University*. Kerwin is a general advisor for CHSS, while Parra is advising coordinator for the Student Outreach and Academic Retention (SOAR TRIO) program. As advisors, they specialize in amplifying student voices and helping students understand higher education.

“We can be a first point of contact and direct students based on what their questions are, what needs are happening,” Kerwin says. “There are so many different things that can happen to a student over a given semester that it is not really possible to have just a quick list to go to. Your advisor can be your quick list. That’s what we’re trained in.”

Being an advisor is more than just helping students choose classes that meet their degree requirements. Advisors are essential to helping students find their footing on campus and feel like they belong. Students can find a sense of community on campus through classes and student organizations.

Parra has a similar view on her role as an advisor. “When students come in and see me, it’s not just me giving information, it’s me teaching them to understand the policy, to navigate higher education, to navigate the resources. So my role as an advisor is to enrich students with knowledge and give them tools so that they can also navigate higher education themselves and be independent after they see me.”

Advisors are students’ first point of contact when they need access to resources. SF State has wide-ranging resources to help with many different aspects of students’ lives, but students aren’t always aware of what’s available. Advisors act as conduits for all the resources the University has to offer.

The two advisors concur that not knowing the resources available seems to be the biggest hurdle shared by students. When presented with the appropriate resources and action plan, students succeed far beyond what they imagine when coming into the University.

Students in the SOAR TRIO program are among those who frequently surpass their own expectations. The program provides support services and resources to low-income, first generation college students in health-science-related fields. SOAR TRIO gives students the opportunity to create personal relationships with their advisors by meeting at least four times a semester. The program has been fundamental to the improving graduation rates for such students. In fact, SOAR TRIO students have one of the highest graduation rates at SF State.

Kerwin and Parra agree that all students, regardless of whether they are in a program like SOAR TRIO, should speak with an advisor at least once a semester to receive help on what classes they need to stay on track for their degree. Students do not have to navigate the University alone. Advisors are always there to help provide resources and a road to success — students only need to go meet with them to find out.


*Update: Advising for CHSS students is now offered through SF State’s Undergraduate Advising Center. For more information about advising, visit the Undergraduate Advising Center website.

Jennifer Kerwin

Jennifer Kerwin

June Parra

June Parra

CHSS Teaching Academy cultivates faculty community, engagement and social justice pedagogy

Participants in the Task Force on Teaching 2019 Summer Retreat (left to right): Associate Dean John Elia, Nicole Corrales (Associate Dean’s Office), Wei Ming Dariotis (Center for Equity and Excellence in Teaching and Learning), Carrie Holschuh (Nursing), Maria Veri (Kinesiology), Valerie Francisco-Menchavez (Sociology/Sexuality Studies) and Sheldon Gen (Public Affairs & Civic Engagement)


One thing many faculty members benefit from is the sense of community and camaraderie they find during chance meetings in the hallways or in face-to-face meetings, in which they hear about others’ experiences and find new inspiration and ideas. With courses at San Francisco State University moved online for the fall semester due to COVID-19, Associate Professor of Kinesiology Maria Veri and many other instructors at the College of Health & Social Sciences (CHSS) are worried about the loss of those valuable in-person interactions.

One solution they are hoping to keep advancing is the CHSS Teaching Academy. The academy was launched in the fall of 2019; it arose out of the CHSS Task Force on Teaching begun by Dean Alvin Alvarez (then associate dean) when the college was reorganized, and it was continued by Associate Dean John Elia.

“It kept coming back to me that we needed not just a task force but an actual long-term plan for how to help faculty at every level — as graduate teaching assistants, lecturers, assistant professors, associate professors, professors,” says Elia. “The goal was to support super-effective teaching on the part of faculty. A lot of college teachers receive no pedagogical or teacher training at all, and the idea was to develop a mini-academy within our college that can serve the faculty well.”

“We wanted to provide a sense of community among everyone teaching in the College, to establish mentoring relationships, help new lecturers, grad students just getting into teaching, even faculty on the tenure track." — Maria Veri

A plan comes to fruition

In the spring of 2019, Veri says, she and other members of the task force, Elia, and a faculty member with the Center for Equity and Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CEETL), held a retreat and began putting those ideas into action, creating a three-year plan.

“We wanted to provide a sense of community among everyone teaching in the College, to establish mentoring relationships, help new lecturers, grad students just getting into teaching, even faculty on the tenure track,” she says. One of the main goals for the academy is to foster a culture of inclusive teaching practices and a social justice pedagogy, Veri explains. “We also want to cultivate faculty engagement and retention and a sense of belonging and to develop a repository of resources, as well as to foster teachers as lifelong learners.”

The Teaching Academy launched with three one-and-a-half-hour workshops, facilitated by faculty experts throughout the University. Topics included developing a self-reflective teaching practice (pictured), designing a social justice syllabus and developing a presence in the classroom. The classroom presence workshop, led by Amy Kilgard, professor and department chair of Communications Studies, gave people exercises to help their presentation style, including posture and practicing tongue twisters and modulating pitch and speed of speech.

Remote teaching brings unforeseen challenges

With courses moved online, Veri says, faculty members need even more support. “Not only are they having to teach in a way that could be partly new to them, but they’re doing so in a time of anxiety and possibly trauma. The same is true for students, and we need help being more compassionate with them too.”

Associate Professor of Sociology Valerie Francisco-Menchavez, a member of the teaching task force who serves as the college-level facilitator for the Faculty Learning Community (FLC) for tenure-track faculty, agrees that the Teaching Academy can be more helpful now than ever, as new challenges have cropped up with online teaching. “One day you might have had a really ‘off’ class where you ran into someone in the hallway and explained that you really bombed it and compared notes. You could think through the everyday challenges we have in the classroom together. But what do you do when you lose your students midway through shelter-in-place and then they pop up again in the last week, for example?”

Teaching can be a very isolated experience, Francisco-Menchavez points out, but the academy can help keep them connected. “You go to your own office, plan your course, and go and teach it again,” she says. “You carry the burden of designing the course and helping students meet learning objectives. The idea of the academy is that teaching has to be collective, that many educators are better than one.”

Francisco-Menchavez says she “re-mixes” ideas from other teachers, not only college teachers, sometimes even from K-12 teachers. “You can have Ph.D.s, but that doesn’t make you a better teacher, it doesn’t give you a community to make you a better teacher.” The academy crosses all ranks, she says. “Sometimes lecturers in our department are some of the best teachers. Even though they’re often in a precarious position they are not saddled with the commitments tenure-track professors are. They may be precarious in the eyes of the institution, but to us, they are our peers, and our students are inspired by them in the classroom.” She hopes the academy will also draw out long term professors that haven’t redesigned a course in over ten years. “You don’t have to change everything, but maybe you can change one thing,” she says. “We want to support all of those folks.”

Veri hopes the academy workshops will give people specific techniques to use in their teaching practice, and tangible goals to work toward. “How can I redesign a syllabus so that it’s more equitable; how can I use language that creates a stronger sense of belonging for students?” she asks.

Looking towards the future

Veri says that although continued funding for the academy could be a challenge during the uncertain times ahead, she plans to move it forward as much as she can. She wants to set up a website with teaching and pedagogical resources, as well as materials from the workshops, and will link it with CEETL’s website. She also hopes to conduct a series of interviews, probably via Zoom, with instructors in the college about their online teaching experiences this past spring. “Questions I plan to ask include what was hardest, what went really well, what do you miss about the semester, what are you planning for the fall with online teaching? Do you have a new digital strategy? How do you establish a sense of community for students online?” she asks.

Carrie Holschuh, assistant professor in the School of Nursing, and another member of the teaching task force who helps advise the Teaching Academy, says one perpetual challenge for faculty — whether courses are held online or in the classroom — is to find the time, with everything else on their plates, to focus on personal growth and development. Holschuh attended last year’s workshops and found them worth her time. She thinks the focus on developing social justice curricula is timely as well. “We have so many amazing teachers and educators in CHSS. My hope — and I’m really excited about this — is that we can support the community more broadly in the College that supports our shared goal of social justice — it’s paramount.”

Associate Professor Emma Sanchez-Vaznaugh blazes a trail in health disparities research

Professor of Health Education Emma Sanchez-Vaznaugh (Photos by Jim Block)

Associate Professor Emma Sanchez-Vaznaugh (Photo by Jim Block)

When Emma Sanchez-Vaznaugh worked as a case manager for a Mission-based migrant-family center in the early 1990s, the challenges were overwhelming. Families with two, three, even four kids were living in a single room, sharing kitchens and bathrooms with more families in other rooms. Besides the obvious overcrowding, there were copious challenges around employment, housing and health care.

Trained as a preschool teacher in Mexico, Sanchez-Vaznaugh, now an SF State associate professor of health education, immigrated to the U.S. to join family members and had only recently learned English herself, through City College’s ESL program. But with her education and growing language fluency, she was able help more recent migrants tackle immediate needs, including health issues like locating affordable doctors and vaccines. The resources her clients needed weren’t always available.

As soon as she’d help one family, there was always another family, a new crisis. The endless cycle of need might have driven some people to burn out, but Sanchez-Vaznaugh — who understood the isolation of not knowing the language — loved the work and was inspired by the resiliency of the people she served. She started thinking about how she might make a bigger impact.

That impact turned out to be a public health career launched, and later anchored, at SF State’s College of Health & Social Sciences. Public health policy, she soon discovered, was her path to a broader impact: How could society — schools and communities, cities and states — narrow the health disparities she’d observed between the low-income, minority communities like the migrant families she served and the broader population? What levers could be pulled to narrow the gap between rich and poor on key health indicators like high obesity rates and low physical activity rates — and the litany of health problems that can accompany those indicators?

While she didn’t start out with a plan, her widely published and often cited research has already impacted generations of students, programs and policies focused on health disparities. From co-writing a seminal paper that helped get snack machines removed from public schools to serving on the National Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Physical Activity and Physical Education in the School Environment, Sanchez-Vaznaugh is a thought leader in the field.

“I learned that there was a science around [health disparities], and I immediately became passionate about doing this work, because I knew a lot about it in practice but I didn't know that this whole scientific perspective on disparities existed.”

An SF State connection blossoms

The bridge from direct service to policy research arrived in the person of Zoe Cardoza Clayson, an SF State health education professor who’d been assigned to conduct an evaluation of the migrant-family agency where Sanchez-Vaznaugh worked. The two worked closely on a survey of client satisfaction, and a public health researcher was born.

“I loved the whole process of designing the survey, collecting the data, analyzing it, and writing up a report,” Sanchez-Vaznaugh recalls of the collaboration. The project became the basis for her undergraduate thesis at the University of San Francisco, and the bond she formed with Clayson, who died in 2010, led to a job working for Clayson at SF State.

One part of Sanchez-Vaznaugh’s new job was administering a partnership program with city’s Department of Public Health – her first real peek behind the policy curtain. She also coordinated a partnership between the SF Department of Public Health and SF State’s new master of public health (MPH) program designed to serve students who worked day jobs.

Mary Beth Love, a health education professor who, together with Clayson, wrote the grant for the new MPH program and supervised Sanchez-Vaznaugh’s work, says SF State’s program emphasized community-based research, “working closely with the people who will be affected both by the research and its outcomes, involving them as full stakeholders. It's really a partnership.”

When the MPH program launched, Sanchez-Vaznaugh entered its inaugural cohort as a student. It was clear that the program’s community-based focus was right for her. Professor Lisa Moore’s class on the theories of social production of disease was particularly eye-opening.

“That class really blew my mind… that what I saw in the Mission — the cycles, the poverty, the health issues, the housing — that all of that was related. It was the enactment of disparities, the production of disease,” she observed in hindsight. “I learned that there was a science around it, and I immediately became passionate about doing this work, because I knew a lot about it in practice but I didn't know that this whole scientific perspective on disparities existed.”

Love became Sanchez-Vaznaugh’s advisor, and says the new student brought her thoughtful, insightful demeanor from the office to the classroom. For their culminating project, Sanchez-Vaznaugh and another student, Celia Graterol, developed an online course on the social determinants of health. “These days, ‘social determinants of health’ rolls off everybody's tongue just like ‘online learning’ rolls off everybody's tongue,” Love says, but in back 2000, the research was not widely known, and online learning was still novel. “So this course Emma and Celia developed — it was brilliant. It was way ahead of its time. We still teach it.”

“It's very important to monitor, reduce and maybe even eliminate child health disparities now, because if they continue unabated, they will have a domino effect on a lot of segments of society.”

Research that informs policy

Seeking to deepen her knowledge and scientific skills, Sanchez-Vaznaugh followed her MPH with a doctoral degree at Harvard, where faculty members were leaders in the field of social epidemiology. There, she focused on methodologies, diving into biostatistics — which numbers are important and how to crunch them — and learning how to structure studies that would stand up to rigorous peer review.

With her top-notch resume and research skills, Sanchez-Vaznaugh would have had many opportunities available to her. Why did she choose to come back to SF State?

“We had very meaningful conversations about disparities in a very innovative way — intellectual ideas about how you studied disparities,” she says, adding that some colleagues and many students across the University come from diverse populations. “We have a rich experience here.”

In her research, Sanchez-Vaznaugh continues that innovative approach, investigating, for example, not just the policies that lead to good outcomes, but how those policies get enacted. In a current study, her team is surveying schools serving immigrant and low-income populations to better understand why they’re effective in supporting physical activity among students. Much is known about the benefits of physical activity for health and for learning, “But we don't know a lot about how successful schools make decisions about how to implement physical activity for their students. What stimulated those decisions? If we understand that process perhaps other schools across the nation and maybe the world can replicate that success,” she says.

Next, Sanchez-Vaznaugh launches a $3.2 million, five-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) study that was awarded this February. With partners at the University of Michigan, she’ll be analyzing 16 years of health data to understand the effects of nutrition policies and community environments on childhood health disparities. It’s an enormous undertaking, but one thing that motivates Sanchez-Vaznaugh to take it on is that the research can actively inform policy — it won’t sit on the shelf gathering dust.

“It's very important to monitor, reduce and maybe even eliminate child health disparities now, because if they continue unabated, they will have a domino effect on a lot of segments of society.”

That’s important for everyone, she points out, not just for the populations at the disadvantaged end of the social spectrum. A sick childhood population will impact all of society in the future — including employment, work productivity, health care costs, the military and, by association, national security. Given that children are the most diverse segment of the population, she says, “It's very important to monitor, reduce and maybe even eliminate child health disparities now, because if they continue unabated, they will have a domino effect on a lot of segments of society.”

Universities play a key role

Love says Sanchez-Vaznaugh’s ability to land major grants like the NIH study is highly unusual in the Cal State system, where the focus is on teaching more than research. “She’s getting highly competitive grants that support her insightful queries of large data sets,” Love says. “Her work is game-changing — it’s the result of her passion for both health and social justice. She’s receiving state and national attention for her knowledge and expertise.”

Sanchez-Vaznaugh acknowledges that the enormous support she’s received at the College of Health & Social Sciences has made pursuing research like this possible. She says universities play a central role in reducing economic- and race-based health disparities: they produce research that informs policies; train practitioners for hands-on programmatic work; and train new generations of leaders.

Her own story is just one example, she says. In addition to supporting her research on disparities, “[SF State] trained me and shaped me so that I could be competitive for a Harvard application, and has faculty who really care about their students.”

She’s gratified, both personally and professionally, to continue that cycle, seeing her students discover themselves and the field of health disparities. “It's just wonderful that I get to see that same flourishing that I went through,” she says, adding that for universities to close the health gap, “they must continue to train people who deeply care about this work — that it's not just a job, but it is something that we really need to do to have a better society, a better country and a healthier population.”

Personal experiences motivate Lewenstein scholars to help others

The two 2020 recipients of the Dr. Morris R. Lewenstein Scholarship, Allison Phuong and Michael Brodheim, are at different stages of their lives and careers. But like the scholarship’s namesake, they are both lifelong learners, constantly striving to improve themselves despite challenging lives. The scholarship, each says, gives them some breathing room as both work full time while working toward their degrees.

Sociology major eyes career as mental health social worker

Allison Phuong

Allison Phuong, a junior majoring in sociology, applied to and was accepted by eight universities, but chose SF State after considering family and financial concerns. “Looking back now [that decision] was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life,” Phuong wrote in her scholarship application. “In my three years at SF State, I have found some of the most amazing professors, advisors and classmates who have helped me to see my strengths that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to find on my own.”

After graduating, Phuong, who has worked full time to support her family throughout her undergraduate years, wants to continue her education and attain a master’s degree in social work. She especially wants to help people cope with mental health issues —her father suffers from bipolar disease, and she grew up experiencing the challenges associated with it.

“Through helping my father I saw how much I wanted to pursue a career in helping those who need help and the many who want it. I have a passion for helping with mental health, whether for young adults or parents of any age or older people suffering with mental illness or families with someone who’s mentally ill. I know that can be kind of broad but my passion for mental health will allow me to work with different demographics,” she says.

The Lewenstein Scholarship, Phuong says, will help make the grad school application process less stressful. “I can go into applying for grad school with a wider lens and wider scope in terms of which schools and programs I apply to. It’s provided a cushion for me so I don’t have to be as stressed about planning ahead. It helps me keep one foot in the present and one in the future.”

Phuong has sometimes worked two or three jobs while attending SF State. “There has yet to be a semester where I haven’t taken on a full-time course load of work, part-time work, and volunteering,” she says. “Additionally, I have a full-time commitment to my family. When my father lapses into manic episodes, I have to step up to help them financially and emotionally.”

She says her advisor Taryn Wong has had a strong stabilizing influence on her. “She was such a concrete, supportive figure for me. I could always come back to her consistently every semester. I never had that person before.” Phuong hasn’t ruled out the possibility of becoming a college counselor herself, once she is finished with grad school. But her ultimate goal is to find balance. “I want to support my family but also support my own independent dreams, and to be happy while giving back to the community.”

Master of Public Administration student seeks to contribute through nonprofit work

Michael Brodheim

Giving back to the community is also a goal for Michael Brodheim. After being incarcerated for 35 years and then released in 2015, Brodheim found a welcoming place at SF State through Project Rebound. Prior to being incarcerated, he had received an undergrad degree from MIT; he then continued his education while in prison, obtaining a master’s degree from Antioch University and working as a paralegal helping other prisoners.

Upon his release, however, he discovered that finding a job was much harder than he’d anticipated. “Even in workplaces that hired formerly incarcerated people, I would lose out to someone who had just gotten a degree.” He says he realized he needed to rectify that gap and rebrand himself as not just someone who recently came out of prison but someone with a master’s degree in public administration.

His interest in public administration came from the advocacy and paralegal work he did while in prison for others who were incarcerated. “While incarcerated I learned firsthand that the criminal justice system — a system I formerly believed operated fairly — operates instead in a manner which disproportionately impacts people of color and poor people, helping to ensure that they remain effectively stymied from ever reentering mainstream society,” he wrote in his application for the scholarship. Brodheim’s name appears on two published federal cases: One upheld the rights of a prisoner to engage in protected activities under the First Amendment without being subjected to retaliation by prison officials.

Brodheim hopes to finish his master’s degree in the fall of 2021; he works full time and takes two courses each semester. Despite the challenges, he is grateful and appreciative for the second chance he’s been given in returning to society and the opportunities he’s found at SF State. “I feel extraordinarily lucky to have this second chance to breathe fresh air. The air outside has a different quality to it than the air on the inside.” He describes his experience at SF State similarly. “I am grateful for the welcoming culture at SF State, where I am treated as a human being. Such a breath of fresh air!”

While he works toward his master’s degree, he’s working full time at the Prison Law Office in Berkeley as a litigation assistant. He monitors prison conditions to make sure that prisoners receive appropriate medical and mental health care, among other concerns. “We want to ensure that the prison system does a better job than it would if we were not looking over their shoulders,” he says.

Having witnessed firsthand the effects of structural discrimination, Brodheim hopes he can work to change the wrongs he’s seen. He says, “I made an unforgiveable mistake, and I want to give back to the community I grievously harmed. I don’t know that I can balance the scale but I’ll make an effort to do the right thing as much as I can every day and hopefully make some contribution.” He believes a master’s degree in public administration will help him do that. “It will give me an avenue through which I can hopefully give back to the community in some capacity while working in a nonprofit.” 

Assistant Professor Valerie Francisco-Menchavez's team focuses on Filipino American caregivers

Student and child collect surveys

Kristal Osorio and Aya Francisco-Menchavez table to collect surveys at Kasayahan Filipino American History Month celebration in Daly City in 2019.

Before COVID-19 hit, Valerie Francisco-Menchavez, assistant professor of Sociology, and research assistants Kristal Osorio and Elaika Janin Celemen, had been hard at work preparing to present their research on Filipino immigrant caregiver stressors at the Association of Asian American studies conference in Washington, D.C. in April. But the cancellation of the conference due to the pandemic has not stopped the three women from carrying their research forward, work that is even more timely and relevant today.

“Under COVID-19, we have a new angle,” says Francisco-Menchavez. “So many Filipinos are on the front lines right now — as caregivers in home health care and nursing homes.”

The team had completed 102 surveys and eight interviews, and drafted a manuscript for publication. Now, while they wrap up the manuscript on their initial study, they are conducting new research on how the global pandemic has affected front line Filipino caregivers, especially since Filipino Americans make up a large percent of California’s health care workforce. While many work as nurses in hospitals, where they are unionized and receive benefits, others work in nursing homes and extended care facilities, or for home health agencies, where they have less protection and can experience different types of stress. For example, Francisco-Menchavez and her research team found that while many caregivers reported in written surveys that they were not experiencing stress or anxiety associated with their work, during oral interviews they revealed the opposite: many of them worried about their families in the Philippines, and experienced fears related to their immigration status and working conditions. “We need to give more attention to the precariousness of these caregivers,” says Francisco-Menchavez.

Thought partners and collaborators

As her group moves forward despite the new challenges they face, the relationship between Francisco-Menchavez and her assistants continues to strengthen and grow, even as their in-person meetings have switched to Zoom and email. “I view the students more as collaborators than research assistants,” Francisco-Menchavez explains. “They really have been thought partners and collaborators in terms of how we analyze the data we have collected. We are all working with a community we know very intimately — we all have relatives who are caregivers. So I think knowing that puts so much of my trust into them.”

Osorio, a senior who is also a community organizer, says she appreciates Francisco-Menchavez’s community organizing background and the fact that she doesn’t focus on mistakes, but constantly pushes her assistants to become better researchers. “She’s very straightforward in what she wants and asks really intentional questions,” says Osorio. “She’s very intentional in how she gets you to think about things you don’t normally think about, in expanding how you think about things.”

Celemen, who first met Francisco-Menchavez at the University of Portland while she was a student there, says she appreciates how the professor followed up with her, kept in touch when Celemen moved back home to the Bay Area, and offered to include her in her research project this summer. Like Osorio, Celemen says Francisco-Menchavez’s organizational skills and attention to detail have helped her understand how to take on large, seemingly overwhelming projects.

“She has such a clear idea of what we are doing; it’s all about organizing lists and agendas. Even at the beginning of our project in the early stages she set forth a whole five-month plan,” Celemen says. “She shows us how to break things down into smaller goals, in order to get to the larger goal. Seeing it piece by piece really helps when there are so many things to do, and you’re thinking, ‘what do I even start with?’”


“Working with [Francisco-Menchavez] made me realize how much work goes into becoming a professor, especially for a Filipina professor in sociology, and how much work it takes to get our stories out there.”
—Elaika Janin Celemen

Both students see Francisco-Menchavez as a mentor and an inspiration. “Working with her made me realize how much work goes into becoming a professor, especially for a Filipina professor in sociology, and how much work it takes to get our stories out there,” says Osorio. Celemen says she is in awe of Francisco-Menchavez but also realizes that she is a genuine person who cares about her students as people first. “I really like how before we meet — at the beginning of every meeting — she asks how we’re doing. She cares about our well-being first.” Celemen says she was inspired by Francisco-Menchavez’s personal story, which she first learned about during the professor’s Labor of Care book tour in 2018. “I really identify with her experiences growing up as Filipino-American. She’s someone I look up to, and she’s given me opportunities to work in academia and helped me step into the real world.”

With Francisco-Menchavez’s guidance, Celemen recently began working for CREGS as a research assistant on the Together Study; she is balancing the two research projects while she takes a gap year before possibly going to grad school in public health.

“I really believe in [the student researchers] and I appreciate working with and learning from them. The experience they bring as Filipina American immigrants helps me be a better scholar, teacher, mother, parent, friend.”
— Valerie Francisco-Menchavez

Supporting and learning from each other

Francisco-Menchavez sees herself less as a mentor and more as helping two Filipinas navigate the academic world and gain skills they will need. “I’m just transferring my skills to them. I see it more as democratizing the research process. They’ve always been part of a community that looks for information systemically, that tries to answer questions in a deep and profound way. Our community has always done that and always will. We all come to the research table with strengths; I’m not the only person with skills and expertise. When I ask Kristal and Elaika, ‘What are your thoughts on this?,’ they are both empowered enough to say, ‘I think this is happening,’ or to question whether our approach is right or wrong.” She says both women are brilliant. “I really believe in them and I appreciate working with and learning from them. The experience they bring as Filipina American immigrants helps me be a better scholar, teacher, mother, parent, friend.”

Francisco-Menchavez emphasizes that her philosophy is to make sure that everyone understands that they all come to the table with unique strengths — and that together they will make the research project better. “I have skills I can train them in as a professor — academic writing and the research process, for example—but in our research group I try to break those vertical power lines and redistribute them horizontally a little more.” She says she constantly learns from her students and that their collaboration makes her work sharper and more dynamic. “I think the biggest impact is that it helps the research I do have more relevance than just being in an academic journal. Research should really belong to communities and organizations and young people and teachers; everyone should be able to access knowledge and participate.”

All three team members feel very strongly that their research not wither in academia. Some of the research Francisco-Menchavez and her students have done helped inform a report that led to state Senate Bill 1257, which gives domestic workers increased health and safety protections. Says Osorio, “Our objective is to help our community have this data and to have a better picture of how we can serve our community better or advocate for them better in terms of policy and services.”

‘Solar suitcases’ deliver hands-on experience to an environmental justice course

Jin Zhu and Autumn Thoyre with solar suitcase

Environmental Studies student Jin Zhu and Assistant Professor Autumn Thoyre with one of the solar suitcases (Photo by Jim Block)

In a conference room at a Stockton training center last July, Daly City middle school teacher Leland Oshins learned how to connect the wires, ports and circuits in a portable solar-power kit and reviewed materials that would help teach his students about electricity. He and about 20 fellow trainees also learned that the innovative educational program We Share Solar, an arm of the nonprofit We Care Solar, would send the assembled “solar suitcases” to remote schools, orphanages and refugee centers across the developing world, where they’d help meet critical needs like powering medical equipment, lights and water purifiers. Oshins left the training inspired.

“I hadn’t realized that the project was reaching into the classroom but also reaching beyond the classroom,” he says — teaching the kids about energy but also actually bringing power to developing countries.

Unfortunately, back at Thomas R. Pollicita Middle School, the logistics weren’t adding up. Oshins had 11 of the blue teaching suitcases and 180 students — five sixth-grade classes and one seventh grade. He felt deflated. “I’m not going to be able to teach all of my kids all these complicated instructions,” he remembers thinking. Unable to find support, he was ready to give up.

But during a last-ditch call to We Share Solar, his liaison told him that a professor at San Francisco State had just gotten involved in the program — maybe she’d have an idea. He shot her an email, and indeed, Autumn Thoyre, an environmental studies faculty member in the School of Public Affairs & Civic Engagement, confirmed that she’d be training her students to lead the classroom project. Could she send them over to help him out?

“I was like, ‘Yes, please!’” recounts Oshins, who is currently earning his regular teaching credential at SF State while teaching full-time as an intern at Pollicita. After that, he says, all the pieces came together. “It just felt like kismet.”

The partnership crystalized the solar suitcase project’s expansion to SF State. Launched in 2015 as a pilot at Cal State East Bay, the service-learning program gives CSU students training in solar suitcase assembly, then dispatches them to local middle and high schools to provide hands-on classroom guidance. The outcomes are richly layered: undergraduates get both service-learning and science-teaching experience; community schools get a meaningful, hands-on science project; and University faculty get an exciting, well-supported project around which they can develop their own curricula.

“I wanted a course that would think about energy systems in the context of environmental justice.”

New course, new direction

“It’s the kind of project that as an environmental studies professor, it’s really hard to pass up,” says Thoyre, who joined the College of Health & Social Sciences’ faculty in Fall 2016. After completing her first year, she was prepping a new Fall ’17 course when Karina Garbesi, the director of Cal State East Bay’s successful solar suitcase pilot, contacted her about including SF State in an expansion of the project. Thoyre had already organized her newly approved Energy Justice and Sustainability (ENVS 460) course around a different project, but she started rejiggering almost immediately. “Within a week I’d said, ‘I’m on board,’” she remembers.

“I wanted a course that would think about energy systems in the context of environmental justice,” says Thoyre, whose research is on energy policy and climate-change activist groups. She adjusted her curriculum to unify the suitcase initiative with her project “People’s Guide to Energy,” in which her students’ research on energy injustice sites is organized geographically on an interactive map. The connection was natural — one activity analyzes a problem and one develops a solution, she says.

Each training suitcase contains a booklet with step-by step instructions designed for middle school-level and up. There are interactive “Check for understanding” interludes to teach students about electricity while they assemble the apparatus and connect it to a solar cell that lives outside the case. The kit even comes with an LED bulb for testing the assembled power source.

The program, which partners with PG&E, added four additional CSUs this academic year. But the others are all based in physics classes. One of the benefits of the social science lens, Thoyre says, is that she can push her students to analyze renewable energy from a societal perspective — what problems does it solve, and what does it perpetuate? They explore gray areas like who has control over resources and what that means.

“Sometimes so-called ‘clean’ energy has problems,” she says. “If a project isn’t perfect, how do they make it better?”

Lighting up the classroom

In implementation mode at Pollicita, Oshins splits up his classes into small groups, posting one of Thoyre’s students at each one. By the end of two weeks, all 180 kids had built the suitcases from start to finish. Some kids even got an extra turn.

“They got really good with it. They could put this thing together in under an hour,” Oshins says.

He was especially gratified to see that hands-on building was a way for students who were not as strong at more traditional classroom activities to excel. One of his seventh-graders, Rafat, had trouble focusing and often acted out in class. “He gets yelled at a lot,” Oshins confesses. But Rafat quickly connected with his SF State mentor, Nathan Wong, and with the project itself.

“Rafat just nailed it. He worked his way through the build in no time at all, and was just so excited,” Oshins says. “I wish I could have taken a picture of his face — you could see how ecstatic he was to build something with his own hands, to really figure it out. He wanted to build it again — he was upset when the period ended.”

Thoyre’s students created a lot of moments like that, Oshins says. “In a relatively short amount of time, maybe 40 minutes, they were able to accomplish something really big for these kids.”

The project’s social dimensions go deeper than just different learning styles. We Share Solar originally designed the project to engage students from underrepresented groups — students of color, from low-income or immigrant families, and females — in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Students who get involved in science projects with a social justice component are more likely to get interested and stay interested, Thoyre says, citing a growing body of research.

And the culturally diverse middle-schoolers, many of them from working class, low-income or immigrant homes, saw role models in the SF State students. “There’s power in having college students from the same socioeconomic background as the classroom kids share their passion and show what it’s possible to achieve,” she says.

Katya Amezcua and LisaMarie Betancourt test the circuit

SF State students Katya Amezcua (left) and LisaMarie Betancourt use a digital multimeter to test the circuit on the solar suitcase they have just built. (Photo by Ernita Joaquin)

Reaching further into the community

Jin Zhu worked late the night before his scheduled visit to Oshins’ classroom, slept through his alarm, and missed the session. He was crushed. The environmental studies major, a newly transferred junior from Skyline Community College, has a passion for the suitcase project, including working with kids.

As a San Francisco native whose parents emigrated from Hunan Province to work in his grandfather’s Chinese restaurant chain, Zhu understands the value of his presence for some of the school kids. He was the first in his family to go to college, and hadn’t had a lot of role models or parental coaching to suggest careers outside the restaurant arena.

“Basically my parents just said, ‘Anything but restaurant work. Find a good civil service job so you can make a living,’” Zhu says. But college and the enthusiasm of his professors, including Thoyre, were opening his eyes more rewarding possibilities.

Determined to make up the fieldwork, Zhu used his own connections, did his own outreach, and brought the project to third graders at Boys and Girls Clubs in both Millbrae and San Bruno. His ingenuity also rescued a few of his classmates who’d missed their teaching day, and together with this SF State posse, he delivered a customized training, devising age-appropriate examples to teach electricity basics. His piece de resistance was a fart-based explanation on how electrons flow. He also included the social justice component.

“I wanted them to see their own privilege compared to kids in developing countries,” he says. He gave them examples of what energy is used for that they could easily understand — like seeing in the dark to remove a painful splinter or finish homework — “And then I emphasized: People don’t all have the same stuff you guys do.”

The kids loved it. “When they plugged in the light bulb, they were like, ‘Oh my god, we did it! That’s so cool!’” Zhu recounts. He especially loved how they took basic concepts and ran with them, asking questions like “Can moonlight charge it?” They wanted to show their families, and one girl asked to bring the suitcase overseas herself, “so that she could ‘see the people over there using it,” Zhu says. “It was really heartwarming.”

Like Oshins, Zhu observed that some of the kids who’d been labeled troublemakers were exceling in the hands-on activity. “So I told them, ‘If you want to do this in the future, there are jobs like this, where you put things together, and it’s an awesome job.’”

Switching on new ideas

Zhu is hooked. He plans to do more solar suitcase visits with the Boys and Girls Club. Encouraged by Thoyre’s support, he’s considering customizing an internship around his efforts, and is even eying a teaching career.

The project has also altered Thoyre’s academic trajectory, accelerating her timeline for incorporating service learning into her classes. She’s considering turning ENVS 460 into a service-learning class, and that idea is percolating up other possibilities, like training students to do simple energy audits, then sending them into the field to help low-income households find savings. “They’d learn some practical skills but also make a difference,” she says.

For now, Thoyre looks forward to hearing from We Share Solar about where last semester’s suitcases landed, to cement the value of the class.

“It’s not just that the students learn hard skills and soft skills,” she says, referring to assembling electronics and mentoring children. “They are also literally creating renewable energy. They’re actually helping people in the world have access to energy who really need it.”

Going even broader, Thoyre points to the powerful symbolism that even a middle-schooler can build a solar suitcase. A lot of her students arrive with a preconception that renewable energy isn’t used more because the technology isn’t far enough along, she says. “Once you demystify the engineering aspect of solar energy, it puts the focus back on policies and economics and social norms and those larger question of what kind of energy systems we’re using.”

A grad student’s winding road helps him find voice and purpose

When the deadline arrived for Christoph Zepeda to apply to transfer from Santa Barbara City College to UC Santa Barbara (UCSB), he needed a grade-point average of 2.75. He had a 2.79. “I just barely got in there,” recalls Zepeda, who will earn a master’s degree in clinical rehabilitation and mental health counseling from SF State this spring. This near-miss was just one of many pivotal moments in an academic journey full of unplanned twists and turns — but following this uncertain road, Zepeda has found a profession he feels passionate about and a voice he uses to help others.

Falling in love with learning

Zepeda’s academic trajectory first veered from the norm at 16, when he dropped out of high school to attend community college full time. A self-described “emo” outlier in high school, the Goleta, California native preferred the autonomy of college, including the ability to customize his classes according to his own nascent curiosity. He earned his A.A., and, through a special transfer program, squeaked into UCSB. The move to the university was challenging — more tests, more work, more everything. But through a daily routine of long hours at the library, Zepeda began to find himself.

“I really fell in love with school and learning when I got to UCSB,” he says. The library’s eighth floor, sparsely populated for most of the school year, had tables where he could spread out and windowed walls looking out across campus, with the ocean in the distance. “It felt like a room of my own. It was magical,” he recalls. From that refuge, he dove into the rich stories and cultures of his comparative literature courses.

Then, inspired by his Holocaust Literature professor’s passion for her topic, Zepeda hatched a graduate school plan he describes as his “’Legally Blonde’ moment.” “I want to go for a doctorate!” he remembers thinking in a lightning-fast decision that echoed when the film’s lead character suddenly decided to enter law school despite minimal preparation. Eventually he decided on a master’s in English literature and raised his sagging GPA to 2.98 — close enough to SF State’s 3.0 requirement to get him admitted — conditionally — to the English Department. Even though he met his goal, scraping by yet again was deflating, and it took its toll on Zepeda’s self-esteem.

“Learning to allow myself to be myself — that’s what was hard, in the beginning,” he recalls. “In Santa Barbara, I felt like my life needed to follow a script. Even though I was overcoming some difficulties,” he says, referring to financial struggles and an emerging awareness of learning disabilities, “I was still really hard on myself.”

“I didn’t know you just stand up for something you believe in, fearlessly. Seeing that modeled in a way that wasn’t aggressive, and was more uniting — that was something I wanted to be able to do.”

More course-changes

A year spent saving up money and organizing his financial aid helped smooth the transition to graduate school and SF State, and Zepeda knocked out his course requirements in two years. But when it came time to write his thesis, burnout set in. To take a break but still stay connected to school, he enrolled in a certificate for teaching reading to adults and became involved in extracurricular activities, serving as an officer in student organizations for English and comparative literature.

Thanks to that self-granted two-year extension, Zepeda not only finished his thesis, but his forays into campus leadership led to an editorial internship with the city — experience he parlayed into an editorial job right after graduation, at the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP), based at Alliant International University.

The irony is not lost on Zepeda that it was his time spent away from his degree work that set positive events in motion. “My burnout led to doing student leadership positions, which led to an internship, which led to a job,” he says, retracing his erratic trajectory. Writing your own script, he was discovering, could be a really good thing.

Finding ‘home’

Sold on the value of getting involved, Zepeda joined CSPP’s multicultural committee, where he found role models, including Janie Pinterits, who directed the school’s master’s in clinical counseling program. “She had a spirit of wanting to advocate for the people with least amount of power in a situation,” he says, inspired by Pinterits’ ability to call out injustices. “I didn’t know that you could do that — I didn’t know you just stand up for something you believe in, fearlessly,” he says, adding, “Seeing that modeled in a way that wasn’t aggressive, and was more uniting — that was something I wanted to be able to do.”

Recognizing that a professional degree created the means to achieve that end, he started taking classes in Pinterits’ program. When his contract ended — along with the free employee classes — heading back to SF State for a counseling degree made sense. “What I love about San Francisco State is it just represented a sense of home,” he says.

He especially liked that SF State’s numerous specializations within the counseling program — there are six — allowed him to learn about the variety of professional directions his classmates were heading in. A double-coincidence of two CSPP faculty members, Tiffany O’Shaughnessy and Alison Cerezo, moving to SF State at the same time he did, added to the comfort zone. Professor Julie Chronister, his academic advisor, offered feedback and encouragement, sometimes extending office hours to accommodate his schedule. Chronister says Zepeda uses her input to strengthen his counseling skills, knowledge and attitude. “He is a quiet yet powerful voice for accessibility, social justice and cultural and disability competence,” she says of his passion for helping underserved populations, many of whom face barriers he himself had to overcome.

Embracing the journey

Looking ahead to a spring graduation, Zepeda, now 33, hopes to work in a community mental health facility and launch a small practice where he can provide culturally sensitive, trauma-informed care. Now that his professional career is on track, are his herky-jerky days over? Probably not, he laughs, explaining that a gerontology focus somehow led him to a clinical practicum working with children. “But I’m embracing it more.”

Zepeda’s story is most remarkable for what it isn’t — it isn’t about grand, long-term goals or dramatic sacrifices to reach them. It isn’t about the labels that might be applied to him: learning-disabled, Latino, gay, and from a low-income home — though, he notes, those dimensions of his identity have certainly informed his life experience. Mainly, Zepeda defines his story as following the road his love of learning has taken him on so far, and letting go of judgment when he didn’t have highest GPA or the fastest finish time, or even a firm grasp on where each change would take him.

“You have to capitalize on those pivotal points,” he now understands, “and maybe not write off things you didn’t think you’d do.” If he can be a model for others, he says, “I want people to be comfortable with who they are, and feel that sense of home-ness.”

Teachers-in-training and preschool kids learn together

Christine Nevarez, early practicum support specialist (left) and Linda Platas, assistant professor of child and adolescent development

Waiting in HSS 107 for her early childhood classroom practicum to begin, Stephanie Estrada clutches an invisible steering wheel at her desk while her classmate Keila Hurtado quizzes her on driving-test questions. Estrada, an East Palo Alto native finishing her sophomore year in preparation for the child and adolescent development major, didn’t get her license in high school, when most of her peers got theirs. At the time, she had other concerns — her family had become homeless, and she struck out on her own so her mother could focus on three younger siblings.

High school became a refuge for the bright and talkative teen as she moved between friends and relatives, preparing to take on college. Yet when her financial aid package finally arrived, she learned it wouldn’t cover all her college expenses. But a teacher at Palo Alto High School — the same one loaning her the car for the driving test — housed Estrada for the summer and set up a Go Fund Me site to raise the money she needed.

“I got $24,000 in 24 hours from all my teachers,” she says. “That’s why I want to be a teacher — to help other students.” She adds, “That’s why education is so important to me; it’s something that can never be taken away from you.”

Hurtado also feels a deeply personal, though different, connection to teaching. She remembers arriving from Mexico as a shy 5-year-old struggling with a new language and a new country. She noticed that teachers seemed to prefer interacting with certain children, while casting others aside. “I remember every gesture teachers made, both positive and negative,” she says, recalling hurtful slights she endured. “People think, ‘Oh they’re just little kids, they’ll forget about it. But in reality, that’s the time you take in everything.” She wants to work with kids so she can be present for every child, dispensing the positive gestures she didn’t always receive herself.

Stephanie Estrada works with preschool children.

Stephanie Estrada works with preschool children.

Both Estrada and Hurtado enrolled in the early practicum, CAD 215: Foundations in Early Childhood, because it allowed them to follow up their interest with real preschool-classroom experience before committing to the major and the career track. The year-long experiential program is an SF State-led experimental iteration of Jumpstart, a national curriculum that allows college students to lead preschoolers through literacy activities. SF State’s pilot is unique both for its focus on early literacy and math-based activities, and, just as importantly, for the experience it provides students.

“The students are learning how to be a teacher in all of its aspects, from lesson planning to activity planning to interacting with children to talking with parents,” says Linda Platas, an assistant professor in the Department of Child & Adolescent Development (CAD) and the pilot’s main architect. And her students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, can apply to the CAD major and go directly into the profession while they finish their bachelor’s degree. “It’s not just about helping young children with their literacy skills. It’s about creating the workforce, supporting the [preschool] teachers and the students they work with, and doing it all with a wider developmental view,” says Platas, who spent 14 years working as a preschool teacher before earning her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley.

“The students are learning how to be a teacher in all of its aspects, from lesson planning to activity planning to interacting with children to talking with parents.”
— Linda Platas

Math and more

That wider developmental view has its roots in a seminal 2007 study, which found that early understanding of math concepts predicts not only better math skills later on, but better reading skills as well. SF State’s pilot, launched by the CAD department in 2016, is one of just a few math-based early learning programs in California (along with Stanford and UCLA) to follow up on that study.

“The best and richest activities have all the domains of learning — including language and literacy, science, mathematics, the arts, and social studies elements like understanding culture and communities,” Platas explains, adding that elements like vocabulary and socio-emotional skills cross all of the domains. “You’re always going to be talking to the children and making sure your conversations are really rich no matter what topic you’re discussing,” she says, “and the game format helps students learn how to interact socially.”

To create the early practicum, Platas leveraged the existing Jumpstart class, which already placed undergraduates in San Francisco preschool classes serving low-income kids, and expanded its developmental focus. The Dhanam Foundation provided funding for the pilot. Students were recruited both from the Metro Academy, a program that supports first-generation college students like Estrada and Hurtado, and students in CAD classes. Platas’ secret weapon is a classroom coach, Christine Nevarez, who supports the students in the college and preschool settings, co-teaches with Platas and enlists new recruits.

Practicum students have experienced all that value in action. Noelle Akousa Dankwa Owusu, a rising senior, learned about the course when Nevarez visited her education class. Hailing from a family of nurses in Temecula, near San Diego, Owusu had been pre-nursing until she discovered she had little tolerance for blood. So when her interest turned to education, she especially appreciated the practicum’s try-it-first opportunity. Once she started working with the kids, she knew she’d found where she belonged.

Over eight months, Owusu transformed from a nervous newcomer to a confident member of the classroom who is ready for the next challenge. “Problem-solving and seeing how the different kids learn and what keeps them interested … those are all tools I can use when I go on to another class or another site,” she says.

And she’s seen first-hand how the math games teach more than just math. One child, an English-language learner like many of the students at his Sunset neighborhood school, was shy and quiet — but she started doing shape activities with him, and he loved it. “He really liked the word ‘hexagon’ so I’d make sure to talk about it more,” Owusu says. Soon he was greeting her at the door requesting to do the shape activity. And he was talking more. Now, she says, “He talks a lot. He’s even a little bit of a smart-mouth — he’s the sort of kid who constantly asks ‘Why’?”

“Problem-solving and seeing how the different kids learn and what keeps them interested … those are all tools I can use when I go on to another class or another site.”
— Noelle Akousa Dankwa Owusu

New pathways to training

The practicum pilot complements a robust existing program in the CAD department that supports the early childhood workforce. Started in 2012, the Promoting Achievement Through Higher Education program, or PATH, offers evening and weekend classes to help employed preschool teachers continue working while earning their bachelor’s degree in child and adolescent development. PATH is also designed to bring a new and diverse group of upper-division undergraduates to the profession, according to Lygia Stebbing, who runs PATH under the umbrella of EDvance — a constellation of programs at SF State’s Marian Wright Edelman Institute and in the CAD department that create pathways to a B.A. for early childhood educators.

The partnership between Platas, PATH, the Dhanam Foundation and Jumpstart made it possible to initiate the new early practicum — with its wider developmental focus than previous CAD practicums — as a pilot project in 2016. Besides providing freshmen and sophomores with classroom and teacher experience, the early practicum pilot connects them to the PATH program as upper-division students.

From the perspective of an early practicum student, moving right into PATH is an attractive option — a two-year graduation track with a guaranteed slot in classes. Owusu, who is continuing to PATH in 2017, appreciates not having to compete with a crowd of “crashers” all trying to get into the same required classes, but she also likes knowing exactly where she’s headed. “PATH is super awesome because it gives you a path. It gives you milestones so you can see what’s coming next. That’s motivating,” she says.

Noelle and Maria preschool kids in a learning activity.

Noelle Akousa Dankwa Owusu (left) and Maria Olalde (far right) engage preschool kids in a learning activity. 

A success on many levels

When Platas and Stebbing try to explain how all the programs and feeders and funders connect, they both start, stop, draw in a deep breath, and just say, “It’s complicated.” What’s not complicated is how well the unified constellation of programs is working.

“It’s a huge success,” says Stebbing. “One hundred percent of PATH students graduate in two years.” And because they need to have a job to be in the program, PATH students have 100 percent employment, helped along by local agencies, who hand-pick PATH students for placement. And their students are staying in the field, Stebbing adds. “At least 50 percent are going on to get their master’s.” The early practicum alone has a 100 percent retention rate.

Perhaps the greatest measure of success for a pilot is adoption, and Platas’ year-long math-based early practicum is being fully adopted in Fall 2017 as SF State’s only Jumpstart program.

Owusu, Estrada and Hurtado are case studies within the statistics. Deeply attached to her students, Hurtado feels called to a future as an educator and bringing all she’s learned to the kids in her East Oakland community. She ultimately decided that PATH’s prescribed curriculum and late-night commutes weren’t right for her, but she’s sticking with the traditional CAD major.

Both Estrada and Owusu have their PATH jobs lined up and credit the early practicum with inspiring them to plan for graduate school and other ways to elevate their education careers down the line. And both young women measure the success of the program not just by their employment, but also by the dedication and passion of the early childhood education community at SF State and across the city — a community that recognizes the transformative power teachers wield, starting with the youngest kids.

“You don’t know what the kids experience in their lives when they’re not with us, so we give them our all during those hours we’re together,” says Owusu. “The time they spend with you should be meaningful.”

Helping Students Soar: With a boost, first-generation college students excel

In fall of 2012, Carolina Talavera Martinez opened a message from the tall stack of emails that greets new freshman. It was an invitation to a program that said it would help her get to know people in the College of Health & Social Sciences (CHSS), where she was entering as a kinesiology major. “OK,” she thought, “I don’t know anyone here, I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do … .” She kept reading. The letter laid out some requirements to enter the program. “The requirements were things that were going to benefit me,” she recalls. “Talk to an advisor in your department, meet with a general-education advisor — so, of course I was going to do it.”


The advising anchored a slate of services Martinez received in the program and helped her choose the classes that she needed without spending unnecessary time on ones that wouldn’t count towards her major. Not only did she finish her undergraduate degree in four years, but she’s already completing her second semester of a two-year master’s program, also in kinesiology.

That pivotal email was from Student Outreach and Academic Retention, or SOAR, then a pilot program launching to serve the specific needs of low-income, first-generation college students like Martinez in their critical first year of school. Since the initial cohort of 30 students, SOAR has blossomed into a success story with a 97 percent retention rate, a 98 percent rate of solid academic standing, and, as of the Fall 2015 semester, federal funding that quadrupled the number of students it serves.

Students within SOAR’s demographics typically face myriad challenges — working more hours to contribute to family income, helping with younger siblings at home, dealing with outsized stress that descends when family needs combine with exam periods. Those factors translate to the highest dropout rate of any group of college students. A 2015 Pell Institute study found just 9 percent of students from bottom income quartile graduate with a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared to 77 percent for the top income quartile. Among first-generation students alone, only 25 percent graduated within four years and 50 percent within 6 years, according to a 2011 study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, which also found that graduation rates at public universities lag far behind private schools.

“The quicker you get these higher-risk students through, the more likely they are to finish,” says CHSS Dean Alvin Alvarez, who, together with former Student Resource Center Director Jessica Kongthong, designed the program when he was the College’s associate dean. “We know that working alone can add one or two years to their education,” he says — time that can increase debt and decrease earning potential. “The more you drag it out the less likely there will be positive outcomes.”

Even when first-generation students have supportive families who value education, as Martinez did, once they arrive on campus, they typically lack a support system. “They often don’t have that kind of footing — brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles who can help them navigate at the institutional level. They get here and they’re all alone,” Alvarez says. “SOAR gives them somebody to walk the path with.”

More than advising

Current SOAR director Juan Carlos Gonzalez understands firsthand how the students he serves can lose their way. When he headed to San Diego State in the early 1990s, he met both the low-income and first-generation criteria. He felt lost. As he struggled, there were people he calls “instrumental” in helping him stay on track. “I feel like we are that entity for some of these students,” he says.

“Many of our advisors have clinical experience, so they’re able to delve deeper than just grades. The social piece is a really strong part of the success of this program.”
— Juan Carlos Gonzalez, SOAR Director

Student support goes well beyond academic advising. SOAR has tutoring available and offers its students priority registration — a benefit Martinez said made a big difference, though not in isolation. “If I just had the priority registration and didn’t have the advising, I wouldn’t have known what classes to choose,” she says. Academic requirements change as programs evolve, she adds, so having an ongoing relationship within her department kept her on track to finish in four years.

One of the services Martinez valued most wasn’t academic. She often talked to SOAR advisors when the stress became too much. “Many of our advisors have clinical experience, so they’re able to delve deeper than just grades,” says Gonzalez. “The social piece is a really strong part of the success of this program.” Advisors maintain a caseload and track student progress. If they see a student who’s not doing well, they engage in “intrusive advising” — a hated term but a useful tool, Gonzalez says. They “intrude” with emails, phone calls and text messages. “It’s the idea that we’re not just here to answer your questions, we’re here to support you,” he says, adding, “If you give us an inch, sometimes we’ll take the foot if we feel that’s something that you need.”

But the program can’t do everything. A student came to them in financial straits; she needed to help support her mother in the wake of her father’s death. But SOAR doesn’t offer direct grants. They hope to in the future, Gonzalez says, and in the meantime they point students to external opportunities. “That’s part of the services we provide — to say, ‘Even we don’t know, we’ll figure it out together.’”

Carolina with SOAR Director Juan and SOAR Academic Coordinator Taryn

Carolina Talavera Martinez with SOAR Director Juan Carlos Gonzalez and SOAR Academic Coordinator Taryn Wong.

A pilot that took off

SOAR got its start as a specialized program within the College’s Student Resource Center, which still serves all comers. But back in 2012, Dean Alvarez says, the College recognized that it was losing a lot of first-generation, low-income students of color who might not know the potential value of walking through that door. “We needed to be more proactive about reaching those populations,” he said. That meant structuring the initial program so that those students had to come in to get advising and mentorship.

In 2015, the SOAR team landed $1.1 million in funding from Student Support Services (SSS) TRIO, a federal program aimed at helping low-income Americans enter college. The College’s numerous health-focused majors qualified it for support aimed at STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The change expanded SOAR to 120 active students, allowing the program to serve students for two years instead of just one, and including upper-division and transfer students. Disabled students became a third supported demographic, but two-thirds of enrollees must be both low-income and first-generation. That’s not a problem for CHSS — Alvarez estimates that 70 percent of the College’s student body meets that criteria.

“For every one student you’re serving, there are three others who need the services and aren’t getting them,” Gonzalez says. He plans to look for ways to increase the size of the program when he rewrites the grant next year. A separate SSS TRIO program serves SF State’s other majors.

“When SOAR succeeds, that means you’re getting a whole new generation of 120 students to think, ‘I didn’t think I could do this … now, what else can I do?”
— Dean Alvin Alvarez

Return on investment

The more students CHSS can elevate, the better, Alvarez says. He notes that there’s a generative effect — these students often circle back to serve society’s vulnerable populations. Martinez is a case study: Her graduate work is preparing her to address the health needs of Latinas.

But Alvarez emphasizes the greater good. “Programs like this nourish our future,” he says. “Many of these students never thought they’d get out of their neighborhoods, or out of the fields or out of a kitchen. So when SOAR succeeds, that means you’re getting a whole new generation of 120 students to think, ‘I didn’t think I could do this … now, what else can I do? Can I get that master’s or that doctorate? Can I become a physical therapist, a nurse practitioner, a physician?’”

With the right support, the program has already shown, such professional tracks go from being alien to being achievable. “That’s the empowering message of SOAR, that this is within you,” Alvarez says. “When a program like this is at its best, it opens students up to the possibilities in themselves.”

Love Conquers All: Helping diverse families support their LGBT kids

When Proposition 8 was on the California ballot to make same-sex marriage illegal, 10-year-old Jordan Montgomery’s Mormon parents went door to door to urge their neighbors to vote in favor of the proposition, just as their church had asked them to do. But something was deeply troubling Jordan as he walked home from school every day through a sea of yellow signs supporting Prop 8. His stomach churned as he heard his mother, Wendy Montgomery, talking about how “disgusting and horrible” gay people were. He knew he was different from the other boys. He didn’t share his peers’ growing masculine competitiveness; he began to have crushes on boys. Wendy had tried to dismiss what she called the “feminine tendencies” she’d observed in Jordan, but one day, as he became increasingly withdrawn, something told her to peek into his journal, and what she read would confirm her intuition and shake their family’s faith.

Despite having spent her whole life in a church culture that rejects gay people, Montgomery says her first instincts as a mother were to protect her son. “I never for one minute loved him any less,” she says. And, importantly, she let him know.

The Montgomerys tell their story in “Families Are Forever,” an award-winning video produced by the Family Acceptance Project, an SF State-based research, intervention, education and policy initiative. The project educates and counsels families on how to prevent serious health risks to their LGBT children and promote their kids’ well-being by supporting them — even if they believe that being gay or transgender is wrong. The foundation of all of the project’s work is rigorous peer-reviewed research led by Family Acceptance Project Director Caitlin Ryan.

“I knew there had to be a way to bring LGBT young people and families together to strengthen bonds and increase acceptance and support.”
— Caitlin Ryan

Amid tragedy, hope

“Before we did this [research] the perception was that all families rejected their LGBT children and were incapable of learning to support them,” Ryan says. She knew that wasn’t the case. In her 40 years of working with LGBT young people as a clinical social worker, program director and researcher, Ryan had observed a wide range of family reactions to their LGBT children, from very accepting to highly rejecting.

From the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, when Ryan ran the first AIDS service organization in the South, she stood at the bedsides of young gay and bisexual men, supporting devastated parents as they learned for the first time that their son was gay and was dying of AIDS. She saw parents and families who realized too late the cost of pushing their child away. “I knew there had to be a way to bring LGBT young people and families together to strengthen bonds and increase acceptance and support,” Ryan says.

But the existing peer-based LGBT services excluded families, she says, and her own research documented widespread lack of family services or engagement. Until Ryan and colleague Rafael Diaz launched the Family Acceptance Project in 2002 with a major grant from The California Endowment, no one had put the two together before — studying LGBT adolescents and their families. So Ryan and her team pursued the questions: How do parents and caregivers react to their LGBT children, and how do those behaviors contribute to their children’s risk and well-being as young adults? She assembled a multilingual, multicultural research team and conducted an in-depth qualitative study across California. The study involved interviews with families, foster families and guardians from a wide range of backgrounds who were accepting, ambivalent, or rejecting of their LGBT and gender non-conforming children.

What emerged from that work, Ryan says, was “a solid empirical foundation for increasing family involvement and support.” The research team cataloged more than 100 specific ways in which caregivers responded to their child — with either accepting behaviors, such as standing up for them when others mistreat them or finding a positive role model — or rejecting behaviors, such as preventing them having an LGBT friend, physical and verbal abuse, and using religion to try to change or discourage their LGBT identity.

Ryan led a follow-up quantitative study and found that the way LGBT adolescents were treated by their families had a major impact on their health and well-being as young adults. The numbers were staggering. LGBT young people who were highly rejected by their families reported an eight times greater likelihood of attempted suicide, a six times greater likelihood of high levels of depression, and a more than three times greater likelihood of using illegal drugs or engaging in high risk sexual behavior that significantly increased their risk for HIV and STDs, compared to LGBT peers who were not rejected by their families.

A new model

Building on this research, the Family Acceptance Project developed the first family intervention model to help parents and caregivers learn to support their LGBT children. The goals were to prevent serious health risks, prevent removal or ejection from the home and reconnect fractured families when LGBT young people end up out-of-home. Ryan is now implementing the project’s family support model beyond the Bay Area in other parts of the country.

Over the years, Ryan has received many awards for her work, including the American Psychiatric Association’s John E. Fryer Award for major contributions to the mental health and well-being of LGBT people and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 44, for groundbreaking research on LGBT youth and families.

A cornerstone of Ryan’s work is communicating research findings and messaging in culturally specific ways, so families struggling with a clash in values can embrace core beliefs like love, compassion and protecting their child’s health — in contexts that make sense to them. In addition to “Families Are Forever,” Ryan has produced other family education videos such as “Always My Son,” which documents the journey of a Mexican-American family who went to 15 churches before they found one to support their gay child. Ryan and her team have also developed a “Best Practice” family education booklet series in English, Spanish, and Chinese and a faith-based series that show families how to support their LGBT children. “We have to meet people where they are,” she says.

Eliminating Solomon’s Choice

When Wendy Montgomery couldn’t get answers from Mormon church-based materials that advised “it’s just a phase” and referred her to mental health providers who offered “conversion therapy,” she sought help outside her community. She reached out to Mitch Mayne, who blogs about being openly gay and Mormon, and has collaborated with Ryan on curricula and training for Mormon religious leaders. Mayne connected the two women, and Montgomery found the information she had been desperately searching for.

“The project gives families a different way of thinking about their LGBT children by shifting the discourse on homosexuality from morality to health and well-being,” Mayne says.

After Jordan came out, Montgomery learned from the Family Acceptance Project that many of the things parents do out of care and concern to help their child be accepted by others — such as trying to change their child’s sexual orientation — were experienced by their LGBT child as rejection. So it was a revelation to see the project’s research showing that such behaviors were linked with serious health consequences, like the suicidal thoughts and depression Jordan expressed as the family struggled to find its way. She wishes she’d had that information when Jordan first came out.

“If you talk to any Mormon parent out there, they will all tell you that at some point in this journey, you will feel like you have to make a choice — you have to choose between the God that you love and the child that you love. And that is an impossible choice. It’s like asking me, ‘do you want my right arm or my left arm? It's horrid.”
— Wendy Montgomery

Montgomery says Ryan’s work removes that choice from the conversation. “That’s what the genius of the Family Acceptance Project is. It shows you a way to keep your conservatively held religious beliefs… but still love and accept and support your LGBT child.”

That’s the core of the Family Acceptance Project’s work: keeping the focus on behavior and family bonds and aligning the project’s approach with the family’s underlying values. “We’re not saying to people, ‘You have to change your doctrine.’ We’re saying that if you want to protect your child from harm, you need to change or engage in these supportive behaviors,” says Ryan. “That’s enabled us to work with families from all sorts of backgrounds, including very religiously and socially conservative families.”

Since making the video and helping to found LGBT-supportive Mormon organizations like Mama Dragons, Montgomery can barely keep up with the 100 or more messages she receives each week — many of them gut-wrenching pleas for help — from fellow church members trying to navigate similar circumstances. She always sends back the link to the project’s booklet or video. “If a Mormon parent watches that, they will see themselves reflected,’ she says. “It is giving them permission to still love their child and keep their faith,” adding, “It’s silly that we need permission, but sometimes we do.”

The real beauty of the Family Acceptance Project, Montgomery says, is that “it goes upstream.” Help the parents to understand, she says, echoing the lessons of Ryan’s work, and you save the child. “If I have to choose between helping the child and helping the parents, I’ll help the parents. Because I can help the child for a minute when I’m talking to him, but the parents can help him for his lifetime.”