Young Scholars Program boosts student confidence, college prep

The Oregon Young Scholars Program robotics class

A common suggestion for success is to visualize it. The Oregon Young Scholars Program takes that a step further, giving high school students the opportunity to see themselves on a college campus and complete rigorous, college-level coursework.

“It’s really motivating,” said Leanne Merrill, a math instructor in her second year with the program. “Everyone is really focused on them (OYSP students). They get a lot of individual attention. I think a lot of them come away feeling a lot more confident and have a higher opinion of themselves.”

Originally the vision of Carla Gary, the UO’s former assistant vice president for institutional equity and diversity, OYSP was founded in 2005 as an opportunity to expose underserved high school students to the college experience. Since then, the program has been expanded by Yvette Alex-Assensoh, the current vice president for equity and inclusion, to include a focus on technology.

It serves rising freshman, sophomores, juniors and seniors in the Portland and Eugene-Springfield areas. The program features a weeklong summer academy, where students live in UO residence halls and participate in math and writing courses, as well as groups exploring everything from social justice to molecular biology and computer science. In addition, OYSP keeps track of participants during the school year by maintaining contact with school counselors and even holds a high school graduation ceremony for seniors.

This year’s summer academy, which was funded by the UO’s Division of Equity and Inclusion and an anonymous corporate donor, was held from July 12-18. It featured probability and finance math courses; creative and business writing courses; groups studying robotics, molecular biology, gospel as related to the civil rights movement, drama and theater, and physics; a one-time social justice group; and a community networking dinner.

“The common thing was problem-solving, teamwork and understanding how these subjects relate to daily life,” said Barbara Marbury, the interim director for OYSP.

For example, in the computer science group, students learn problem-solving, creative design and individual and team participation skills through robotics. Instructor Michel Kinsy, an MIT graduate and assistant professor in the UO’s computer science department, said the material is especially important considering Intel is now the state’s largest private employer and industry giants like Hewlett-Packard have large offices in the region. Looking at the bigger picture, he hopes to contribute to creating a more diverse and vibrant employment pool.

“Computing and computer technology are part of just about everything that touches our lives,” Kinsy said. “This course exposes the scholars to this fact and highlights to them how computing knowledge of any kind will provide them with a foundation of problem-solving and logical thinking that will serve as a competitive advantage in their career, no matter what field they choose.”

Although the week was full of high points, one that stood out was the community networking dinner. During the dinner, students introduced themselves to professionals such as state Chief Education Officer  Nancy Golden and new UO President Michael Schill and got the opportunity to both pick their brains and brand themselves.

Joseph Villanueva, a rising freshman, said he met plenty of great people at the event. Coming into the week, his goal was to leave better prepared for college. By week’s end, he said he built up his confidence, as well as a family within OYSP.

In addition to the community networking dinner, his favorite moment was breaking into a flash mob rendition of “Lean on Me” for parents on the final day.

“I really got to see how much a part of the OYSP family I became and how much I accomplished,” Villanueva said. “Before, I had never really stepped foot on a college campus. With this, I stayed a whole week with a bunch of people that were there to help me out.”

—By Bruce Poinsette, Division of Equity and Inclusion