Seventh Annual CHSS Showcase held virtually on April 7

This year the College of Health & Social Sciences’ 7th Annual Showcase was held virtually on Thursday, April 7. This year’s event highlighted the theme of Community Wellness and Healing in Times of Uncertainty and Injustice.

The Showcase began with opening remarks by Dean Alvin Alvarez, followed by a satirical presentation by Assistant Mickey Eliason titled “A phenomenological study of critical aspects of pandemic academic work.” The event featured a live panel discussion, followed by Q&A. Faculty members also submitted abstracts, posters and short video presentations to be featured on the CHSS website as part of the Showcase.

See the event recording and panelist bios below.


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Gretchen L. George, Ph.D., RDN, ACUE (moderator)

Associate Professor of Nutrition & Dietetics, FINA

Gretchen George

Gretchen L. George is passionate about prevention and empowerment. In her position as associate professor of Nutrition and Dietetics and program lead in the Family, Interiors, Nutrition & Apparel Department at SF State, she facilitates learning through nutrition education, metabolism, community nutrition and research courses. In the classroom she includes students in her food literacy and basic needs research on the community and college student. More recently she has begun exploring weight stigma in health-related majors from a social justice perspective, with the overall goal of eliminating weight bias in health professionals through incorporation of intuitive eating models in the classroom. Beyond the focus on eliminating weight bias, an imperative goal of hers is to strengthen the understanding of what health means, connecting individual, trauma, access, environment, and biological mechanisms to dispel stigmatizing false information. In her free time, Dr. George lectures for Stanford Healthy Living, part of the BeWell Program, enjoys hiking, and loves traveling with her family.  

Julie Chronister, Ph.D.

Professor, Counseling

Julie Chronister

Julie Chronister is a professor in the Department of Counseling at SF State and a faculty member in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. She is a committed teacher, scholar and advocate who has published over 50 peer-reviewed articles, book chapters and books. Dr. Chronister has received funding from NIMH to conduct research in the area of social support and serious mental illness and has been awarded training grants from the RSA to provide scholarships for her students. She is committed to improving the lives of the most marginalized and stigmatized communities through her research, teaching, and community partnerships.

Dr. Chronister received her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2004 and has been writing and conducting research in the areas of social support, coping, caregiving, serious mental illness and disability for more than a decade. She is also a co-editor of the book, Understanding Psychosocial Adjustment to Chronic illness and Disability, and has presented at mre than 50 national conferences. Dr. Chronister is on the editorial board of several top-tier peer-reviewed journals and is currently a CALPCC board member.

Dr. Chronister recently received a behavioral health workforce grant from DHHS to fund the Equity and Justice-Focused Integrated Behavioral Health Counselor Training Project, of which she is the principal investigator. The project aims to increase the supply of counselors trained to work in integrated behavioral health settings from an equity and justice-focused orientation. A primary aim of the project is to strengthen relationships with community health centers that provide services to the most underserved, including our communities of color and other communities that have been harmed by our health care system.

Ruby N. Turalba, MPH

Lecturer, Public Health

Ruby Turalba

Ruby Turalba is a child of immigrants from La Union, Philippines. She is an educator, ally, and mentor who describes herself as a scholar practitioner working for community, health and justice. She has been teaching public health at SF State since 2010, and her teaching practices integrate cultural humility, liberation education and personal narratives to explore social and health inequities. She has served 2000+ undergraduates, many who are low-income, immigrant, and first-generation college students of color. She regularly infuses class time with health and wellness, self-reflexivity and relationship building.

Much of her community work centers on the health and wellness of the Filipino community, particularly in the South of Market area. In partnership with a local organization, she recently conducted a Community-Based Participatory Action Research project working with multi-generational, multilingual community health ambassadors to improve health among Filipino residents of San Francisco. While the primary focus was on chronic diseases, the project pivoted in response to the pandemic and included COVID-19/vaccine education, distribution of basic needs to seniors and families, as well as mental health and community support while in lockdown. The opportunity also provided workforce development and employment opportunities especially during economic uncertainty. The initiative was truly a collaborative effort among Filipino residents, scholars, activists, and entrepreneurs embodying the spirit of Bayanihan/community and kapwa/connection.

She previously worked in tobacco prevention within school, community, and health department agencies and is now working on a project that focuses on the development of students’ self-confidence, positive identity, and sense of belonging in relation to their participation in a Filipino language program at their school. She is also currently pursuing an educational doctorate and is a research consultant for the South of Market Community Action Network, a non-profit serving Filipinos in San Francisco.

Stephanie Windle, DNP, RN, CNE

Assistant Professor, Nursing

Stephanie Windle

Stephanie Windle is an assistant professor in the School of Nursing at SF State. She received her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from the University of San Francisco and her MSN and BSN from the University of Wisconsin. She teaches psychiatric mental health nursing and integrates holistic health content and healing practices in the curriculum.

Her research focus is on teaching guided imagery in undergraduate nursing education and teaching stress management skills to nurses and nursing students. She teaches guided imagery and relaxation techniques in our skills lab to give students a chance to both experience and provide those practices. She also chairs the School of Nursing Success and Wellness Committee and provides brief stress management tips in the weekly School of Nursing newsletter. Dr. Windle also works with horses and has an equine therapy practice that harnesses the power of horses for healing, growth and insight.

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.”

‘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.”

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.”

Roped In: The Pacific Leadership Institute helps kids find their path

Vida Sanford and Ian Mosier at ropes course

Vida Sanford (left) and Ian Mosier

At 16, Ian Mosier was shy, chronically truant, and on the verge of dropping out of San Francisco’s Galileo High School. He was given a choice to enter a community service learning program or face expulsion. Mosier decided to give the program a try and was referred to the Pacific Leadership Institute (PLI), which is based at SF State’s Department of Recreation, Parks & Tourism. PLI uses outdoor, experience-based activities to teach teamwork, leadership, self-esteem and life skills. A primary feature of the program is training teens to lead PLI's Adventure Challenge Course, a system of outdoor team-building challenges located on a four-acre parcel of land at Fort Miley within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

For a kid who hadn’t gotten much praise for his academic performance in recent years, Mosier says, “Going to the ropes course and being good at it, and getting positive feedback was very transformative for me.” Being a leader and helping others made him feel he was a part of something larger than himself, he says. “My sense of duty kicked in. I re-engaged with my school and with my education.”

Mosier not only graduated from Galileo, but following a PLI internship, he was hired to be a team leader and eventually became the PLI ropes course coordinator. He later completed two years in SF State’s Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration program.

A local stalwart

PLI delivers multiple success stories like Mosier’s every day. School- and community-based programs make up more than two-thirds of the Institute's Adventure Challenge Course clientele. PLI also operates summer programs, including leading the ropes course at the Taylor Family Foundation’s Camp Arroyo in Livermore, which serves children with life-threatening and chronic illnesses or developmental disabilities. In addition, PLI offers ground-level team-building and leadership games and initiatives, including mobile workshops it takes to client sites.

But the Fort Miley Adventure Challenge Course, in continuous operation since 1979, is the Institute’s marquee program. Last year 14,000 people, mostly youth, enjoyed PLI’s programs, with more than 10,000 of them participating in the Adventure Challenge Course. The success of the Fort Miley program has opened the door to discussions with the National Park Service, which manages the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, on an expansion plan that includes building a large group campsite and a universally accessible ropes course designed to serve those with disabilities.

PLI owes its long-term success to a business model that is primarily fee-for-service, and it has proven to be both sustainable and community-centered. Partner institutions like San Francisco Unified School District are repeat customers who write the Institute’s activities into annual grants. “We have a built-in audience with the different school districts and with different programs that use our services year after year,” says Drew McAdams, PLI’s chief of programs. “We’ve been able to be autonomous with that not-for-profit model.”

Vida Sanford is one such steady customer. A district coordinator for San Francisco Unified School District’s Mentoring for Success program, Sanford, who earned both her B.S. and M.S.W. at SF State, manages Project Arrive, a program supporting ninth graders as they transition into high school. Project Arrive’s small groups have been coming together for the ropes course challenge for the past five years.

“There are 50 ninth graders who have to learn to get along with each other for the next four years, so there’s a real value in having this experience together to help deepen their sense of community and trust,” says Sanford. The course offers kids something schools can’t. “We have a lot of kinesthetic learners in our cohort… they’re very physical, which may be the reason traditional schooling’s not working very well for some of them,” she says, adding, “It’s really beautiful to see them in action out there.”

The Ecology of Peer Leadership

What really makes PLI unique is the way its programs and clients engage with each other to create a rich, value-added ecosystem, with the various participants leading and inspiring future groups.

Mosier is home-grown in that ecosystem. His peer-leadership experience was part of PLI’s Youth Lead! training, which teaches teens to facilitate groups and lead ropes-course challenges. New cohorts shadow the veterans, then the veterans shadow the trainees as they gain new skills and confidence. PLI then hires on newly trained kids as leaders. It’s a process that feeds on itself, McAdams says. “As my mid-level managers start to mentor that other generation, it solidifies their skills, so they start to move up,” he says. “That diversity of leadership really works for us.”

PLI’s partners understand that value. “I love to schedule our ropes course on days when those older teens are out there showing what they can do as leaders.” Sanford says. “Our ninth graders love it, and it’s great role-modeling for them because they see, ‘Oh, that could be me.’”

McAdams works to enhance this mentoring further, trying to match visiting students with leaders who graduated from their schools. Such peer relationships “add another layer of cultural relevancy to the groups that we serve,” McAdams says. It’s a quality that makes PLI a rarity in outdoor education, a field often dominated by white males. At PLI, 75 percent of the leaders are people of color, and 95 percent of activities have youth in leadership roles. About 80 percent of all participants are under age 25.

“That whole idea of cultural relevancy — not only in the programming but in the staffing — creates a welcoming environment and breaks the ice,” McAdams says.

Staying Relevant

Jason Martinez was a student for whom those demographics made a difference. At 15, a period of transition had him living out of boxes with his mom and godparents, with no room of his own. He became more interested in being out with friends than going to school. His grades sunk.

He landed at Downtown High School, a continuation school for kids with credits to catch up on. But being at his new school made him feel like he’d done something wrong, he said, and he struggled to fit in. Then at an orientation program, a teacher from Get Out and Learn, an outdoor education-based pathway at Downtown High, gave a slideshow showing kids camping, hiking, and facilitating at PLI’s ropes course.

“I see all these inner-city youth — people who look like me — doing it and having fun,” he said. “I was like, wow, people in the city actually do this?” Kids from the program were at the presentation. “They shared stories of overcoming challenges and overcoming fears — that’s what drew me into the program,” Martinez said.

Soon he was at Fort Miley, scaling tall poles, then jumping off, swiping at dangling objects to test his limits. Far outside his comfort zone, Martinez says the challenges helped him located his self-confidence and make connections. He saw that just as he choose his own path down the cliff, his new school would help him get to graduation. “I learned I’m taking a different route and I’m going at my own pace… but I’ll get there,” he says.

Martinez earned his diploma and returned to work at PLI's ropes course, often sharing his story with new arrivals from Downtown High School. His PLI leadership experience with helped him see “how I’ve inspired other people just by being who I am,” he says, and led him to the education field. He worked with kids in after-school programs, and now, at 27, he’s enrolled at City College and, through an AmeriCorps placement, he’s working with Sanford at Mentoring for Success.

McAdams loves seeing such trajectories.

“The best part of my job is watching the development of these young leaders, not only when they start to gain confidence… but then transfer these skills sets to other parts of their lives.”

Mosier, who’s 34, is still applying PLI skills nearly two decades on. He’s returning to SF State, this time as a psychology major, and plans to go on to pursue a master’s in counseling. It was the ropes course and overall experience with PLI that guided him along that path.

Out on the course for team-building exercises with his master’s students, Professor of Counseling Alvin Alvarez, now dean of the College of Health & Social Sciences, observed a special aptitude in Mosier.

Mosier recalls, “Every year, he was like, ‘You know, Ian, you’d be a good counselor.’” It became an annual refrain. “You know, Ian, you’d be a really good counselor.” Finally, when Mosier re-evaluated his career direction after nearly two decades as a PLI leader, “I looked at my skills and my passions and I said to myself, ‘You know, Ian, you’d make a great counselor.’”

After all these years, Mosier says PLI and SF State professors are still changing his life. “I think that’s pretty cool.”