Battle Creek

College Fair planned to answer questions Calhoun County students and their families may have

‘Why are the kids that graduate high school, not going to college, especially People of Color?’ We just decided to ask them.' — Cassandra Portes
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

When you're the first in your family to attend college there may be a lot of questions about how to make it happen. 

Leaders in Calhoun County's African American, Burmese, and Latinx communities know from conversations with students and their families that many don't know the different higher education options available in Michigan. They also lack information on available scholarships and the application deadlines to be met. 

To better equip those they serve with the knowledge they need to pursue a college degree or certification, a first-of-its-kind College Fair is planned for Feb. 16 beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the Burma Center.  

Masks are required to attend the event which is free and open to all youth and families who may want information about the process of pursuing a higher education, says Sara Johnson, Program Director with the Burma Center and a member of the College Fair Planning Committee.

“We held some focus groups last summer for parents and students around their needs and desires for education and what came out of it, especially with high school students, were a lot of practical questions, like how do I apply to a college, how do I pay for it, and how I can get my parents to support my desire to go,” Johnson says. “We started brainstorming about how we could fill those needs.”
Sara Johnson, Program Director with the Burma Center and a member of the College Fair Planning Committee.  Among the options – workshops in collaboration with other organizations in Battle Creek that had youth groups with similar needs. Johnson says the Burma Center reached out to the  Southwestern Michigan Urban League and VOCES and in conversations that followed the organizations decided that there was enough interest to host a college fair.
“It’s really complicated and if you miss one piece of it you may miss out on the whole thing,” Johnson says of the work involved to pursue education after high school. “Many of these students and families may think that it’s out of their reach and it’s really not.”
To reinforce this, representatives from colleges and universities including Grand Valley State University, Ferris State University, Kellogg Community College, and the University of Michigan will be at the College Fair bearing information and resources to share with those who attend. The event will begin with a 45-minute informational session that will answer questions such as how to select the right school, how families can support their children, and how to finance a post-secondary education.
Cassandra Portes, Program Specialist for Youth and Educational Development with the Southwestern Michigan Urban League says this type of information is especially important for families of first-generation college students or those for whom English is a second language.
This past summer a group of 15 high school students from the African American, Burmese and Latinx communities came together to research what their peers need to know to successfully navigate the path to continuing their education after high school. They met from June to August as part of the Rep4 initiative which stands for Rapid Education Prototyping. GVSU, which has an Outreach Center in downtown Battle Creek is the founding organizer and convener for Rep4. Five other colleges and universities from different regions of the United States are also part of the group.
Cassandra Portes, Program Specialist for Youth and Educational Development with the Southwestern Michigan Urban League. Information on the Rep4 website says that “Rapid Education Prototyping puts the power and incentive of establishing new, equitable systems for public higher education in the hands of those who have the most at stake – learners. Learners lead change by designing agile solutions that can be tested and quickly scaled up when they prove to be successful. Backed by powerful networks of regional and national education, industry, and technology leaders, REP4 will reignite and recreate public education as we know it.”
The program focuses on diversity and inclusion and different ways to get students from BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) communities interested in going on to college.
“I know from being on different boards they’ve been asking that question for the last seven or eight years: How do we get more kids of color acclimated to going to college?” Portes says. “All schools nationwide are saying that they’re seeing decreases in the number of graduating high school students coming on board. That’s alarming when you know that these are kids who have the potential to excel in college.”
Portes says the youth in the local Rep4 group identify as People of Color with the majority being first-generation college students.
“As a collaborative, they were diverse,” she says. “We had kids from all over the city and from all different schools, even the private schools, and we got an earful. It’s been asked in several meetings that I’ve attended ‘Why are the kids that graduate high school, not going to college, especially People of Color?’ We just decided to ask them. We decided to target the youth.”
Among the ideas the Rep4 group came up with was the need to start thinking about college and laying a foundation for what that entails earlier than 11th or 12th grade which means identifying high school courses that would position them better to apply to the schools they’re interested in attending, Portes says.
Youth in the program “were trying to figure out what changes need to be made for college to be more appealing to them and their peers and they did the research,” she says. “It’s very important to me that kids are college-ready and know what schools expect them to take the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and what scores they need. They don’t know how to start the college application process and many kids want to go to college but they don’t think their parents have the money and they don’t know about the scholarships that are available. They don’t know what grades they need, if they need to take the SAT or ACT (American College Testing) and a lot of them aren’t even aware of the different colleges or trade schools in Michigan.”
Identifying and eliminating the barriers
Even though colleges routinely send representatives to local high schools, these visits are almost always during a lunch hour, which gives students very little time to ask questions and leaves the majority of parents who work outside of the home with few opportunities to be there to ask questions, Johnson says.
The College Fair will be accessible to youth and parents, she says.
“For a lot of the families, there is a language barrier. We’re making sure parents feel welcome and providing a safe space for them to ask questions and get information,” Johnson says. “They shouldn’t feel intimidated about answering or asking questions.”
Interpreters will be available to assist parents and a representative from GVSU’s Laker Familia student organization who also is an admissions counselor with the university will share his experiences in both Spanish and English depending on the needs of those who attend, says Al Shifflett, Director of Community Engagement for GVSU’s Battle Creek Regional Outreach Center.
“The language barrier is a big one and sometimes a kid can translate for mom and dad. But when you’re looking for college reps we want to bring in someone bilingual so families and kids can connect and kids can see a professional working in their field,” says Jose Orozco, Executive Director of VOCES.
GVSU has been assisting with the planning for the College Fair.
“Our mission here with the Outreach Center is to truly expand opportunities for students. We’re connectors. Our priority is the Battle Creek Public Schools, but we’re also here for the community and the region,” Shifflett says. “Our true mission is to expand resources and opportunities for learners and to help them with their goals.”
While he would like GVSU to be the college of choice for students attending the College Fair, he says the most important thing is that they know they have opportunities to continue on with their education after high school and are aware of the different options available to them.
“We need to build a culture of education in Battle Creek so that our students have that feeling that there is something more,” Shifflett says.  “Through the College Fair and our Outreach Center, we expose that there are other choices out there, other choices beyond us and that’s what we’re really promoting.”
Youth participating in programming at the Burma Center in Battle Creek.During his time as a high school counselor, Orozco says he would present three options to parents and their students, “go to work, join the Armed Forces or go to college and college can look different for different kids. If we can get the conversation going at home with mom and dad and the kid, that’s going to be our goal for this College Fair.”
He agrees that there needs to be more done and more awareness created in the community about the benefits of a college education. Like the Burma Center and the SWMUL, VOCES has been working with Latinx high school students and their families.
“We’re doing a program targeting high school kids who are going to college,” Orozco says. “We’ve got 11 kids and nine families and every Thursday we break bread. We’re having conversations with our families and kids with people they trust.”
College recruiters don’t have the time to establish those connections, cultivate relationships, and develop trust, he says, adding that trust is key with families who want to send their children to college.
“One of the biggest challenges is understanding the dynamics of Latinx families. We’re very familial oriented and when a kid is possibly considering a college oftentimes mom and dad are engaged in that conversation at home or with college recruiters,” Orozco says. “Some of the colleges and recruiters need to understand that that family piece is very important. They need to take a relational approach when working with some of our families. It can’t be transactional, it’s got to be genuine.”
Jenifer Pui, Education Engagement Program Administrator with the Burma Center.This is also true in the African American and Burmese communities where conversations about college typically involve the entire family.
“A lot of times we focus so much on the student that we forget about the family and that network. We’ve got to do more work to educate the family on this whole process,” Shifflett says. “It’s not just a matter of giving them the financial freedom to go to school. There’s so much involved with the process.”
Jenifer Pui, Education Engagement Program Administrator with the Burma Center agrees. “Our Burmese families are very family-oriented as well,” she says. “Our parents are involved in decisions about what majors to choose and career pathways.”
Based on conversations she’s had with parents some don’t know where to start. She estimates that 60 to 70 percent of Burmese youth are first-generation college students.
“We have a good number of college graduates in our community, but we still have a lot more going into college for the first time,” Pui says. “In our culture education is very important. Families want their children to go to college and get a degree. By families coming to this College Fair, they will get information and become more knowledgeable about how they can support their kids and learn more about college pathways and learn about different colleges.”

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.