For all of its promise and its power to effect positive change, college can seem like an intimidating place to someone who’s never been there before. And when most of your fellow students don’t look like you, it can feel downright lonely. Sometimes, a familiar face can be just the thing to keep you going.
This is the idea behind the Passage to Higher Education, a program for women of color at Portland Community College’s Cascade Campus. By providing a comfortable environment with familiar faces, the program helps its participants to feel at home and, ultimately, to succeed.
“So many women of color drop out before they finish two years [of college],” said Noni Causey, director of the Passage to Higher Education program (or “the Passage,” for short). “I thought that if we could create a situation where they felt comfortable, more of them might stay around.”
Causey attributes the feelings of intimidation and alienation experienced by many students of color to something she calls the “imposter syndrome.” Students of color are statistically far more likely than their white counterparts to be the first members of their families to attend college. While their families might support them, she said, many still look around and say, “Do I really belong here?”
The Passage grew out of a focus group of female students of color that Causey assembled in 2010. In speaking with the women in the group, she learned that these kinds of apprehensions were far more widespread than she had suspected – so much so, in fact, that she was motivated to create the passage as a sort of safe haven for women of color at Cascade Campus.
“It’s really about, ‘Can I please have a place where I can talk about my fears and insecurities? Can I have a safe place where I can say I’m scared without being judged?’ ” Causey said.
The Passage to Higher Education – the name was chosen to evoke the trials of the infamous Middle Passage of the trans-Atlantic slave trade – began in earnest with three women in the fall of 2010. They would talk among themselves about the challenges they were facing as college students, and Causey would bring in speakers to address the group, usually women of color who had successfully completed college. The group met once per month, Causey said, and at each successive meeting the women would bring more of their friends and classmates with them.
“One of the greatest benefits, I would say, is the ability to study and be assisted in an unintimidating environment with people like myself,” said Lisa Arcenaux, a Passage student. “I have received tutoring that I could not normally get … and the hours of group homework study really help with the completion of my homework.”
The Passage soon grew to 10 women, and then 15, and then more. Causey started to get phone calls from PCC graduates who were now attending schools like Portland State University and Concordia University – all of whom wanted to get involved as mentors for the women in the program. Once this peer-to-peer mentoring component was in place, Causey said, the Passage really began to take off.
“It was wonderful to have these women come in and share a vision of going through [college] to the end,” she said, “whether it’s a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, or more. It’s so important for our students to see and hear that it can be done.”
The Passage still meets monthly, on the first Friday of each month. A meal is provided, adding to the sense of warmth and sisterhood that pervades the meetings. The first part of the meeting features a guest speaker, and the last part is always devoted to what Causey calls “sister talk,” where students share their thoughts and feelings about the barriers they face and the successes they have achieved. They also share resources and advice with one another in the interest of spreading that success as widely as possible.
“Each time I attend the Passage, I am reminded I am not alone,” said Toneasha Kelly, a student in the program. “I am an African-American woman with three children and I am the first to attend college in my family. … I knew this is where I belonged, but had little support to encourage me to stay. I want to be educated in order to be financially secure … and set a new precedent for my children that we do go to college! The Passage gave me the opportunity to understand I am not alone, and to visualize my dream of being a Special Education Middle School teacher is well within my reach.”
All of the women in the Passage are first-generation college students, and about 90 percent come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. In addition to peer support and mentoring, the program helps connect its students with existing PCC student support services, and encourages them to take full advantage. The program also takes its students on field trips to local four-year colleges and universities, so that they can begin to visualize their educational lives beyond PCC.
And it’s working. Causey said that almost all of the women in the Passage have improved their grade point averages and attendance rates. Demand for the program continues to grow, to the point that Causey recently launched a pilot version of the program for men of color.
“I want all my students to ask themselves, ‘Who am I?’ ” Causey said. “Once you can begin to answer that question honestly, the road ahead doesn’t seem as difficult.”
Learn more about the Passage to Higher Education, call (971) 722-5842.