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Whitworth invests in urban students


 L. Denice Randle, far right, sings with a student-run gospel choir recently at Whitworth College.  Randle is a participant in Whitworth's Act Six program. 
 (Jed Conklin / The Spokesman-Review)
L. Denice Randle, far right, sings with a student-run gospel choir recently at Whitworth College. Randle is a participant in Whitworth's Act Six program. (Jed Conklin / The Spokesman-Review)

When L. Denice Randle was looking to go from Pierce Community College to a four-year school, she was sure of one thing. “I knew I wanted to be immersed in black culture,” she said. So the story of how she wound up attending mostly white Whitworth College in mostly white Spokane involves a few twists and turns. But Randle is one of 41 top inner-city students who have come to Whitworth from Tacoma in the past four years as part of a program that is becoming a model in helping low-income urban students succeed.

The program, Act Six, is expected to graduate its first 12 students this spring. Forty-one students have entered the program since it began, and just one has dropped out. The group carries an average GPA of 3.42, and it includes several student leaders – including the student body president, Fa’ana Fanene.

And now other private colleges in Portland and Memphis are developing their own programs like it.

All this at a time when just over half of all college students graduate within six years, and when the majority of black, Native American and Hispanic students drop out. And when the costs of higher education are such that weak students from rich families are as likely to attend college as good students from poor ones, federal statistics show.

“Everyone is talking about diversity,” said Tim Herron, a former teacher in Tacoma who drove the formation of the program and is now its director. “What Whitworth is saying is, ‘We’re going to invest in 40 leaders to help change the culture and some of the structures of our campus.’ It’s a college investing in change in itself.”

It hasn’t been cheap or easy. Whitworth will spend about $700,000 on the program this year, and it commits to covering all expenses for students in the program that aren’t covered by scholarships or other sources.

Another of the keys to the program is identifying the “cadre” of students a year before they enter college, and spending nine months giving them classes in areas such as time management and study habits. The students visit campus beforehand, and once they arrive, they have access to one another and to support from program leaders such as Esther Louie, assistant dean for programming and diversity.

“I’m available, in some way, at all times, and it’s still not enough,” Louie said. As an institution, “you really have to want to do it. This is not easy.”

For Randle, an African American, her time in Spokane has been eye-opening in more ways than one. She said she was the object of a certain well-known racial slur for the first time after moving here – from a man she proceeded to follow and question “in a spirit of love” for several blocks.

“I know it had an impact on his life,” she said.

She’s also had leadership and academic experience at Whitworth and great support from the program, she said. That support from other students and program officials is perhaps the most critical aspect of Act Six, the students say.

“You can’t just bring (minority) students here and say, ‘OK, we’ve got our numbers,’ ” Randle said.

‘Sense of isolation’

Act Six sprouted from the life and experiences of Herron, a Spokane native who has been teaching and living in Tacoma’s inner-city neighborhoods for years. He has a passion for helping the disenfranchised that grows from his Christian faith – the program’s title refers to a biblical story in Acts in which members of a majority community empowered minority leaders to help create change.

Several years ago, he began tutoring students in his garage, and later began taking groups of students around Washington to tour college campuses.

Many of those kids went on to college.

And many of them dropped out.

“As these students were coming back and talking to me, one of the things we picked up on right away was that part of what was making it hard for them to hang in there was a pretty profound sense of isolation,” he said.

Herron started working with the Northwest Leadership Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to education and leadership based in Tacoma. He became familiar with another program that worked with inner-city kids in urban areas, and eventually approached Whitworth about trying something similar.

To succeed, he said, they would need lots of financial support and an overall buy-in from the college that exceeds the typical diversity initiative.

Eventually, the program was put together by the foundation and Whitworth, and it enrolled its first cadre four years ago. One goal is that the students will return to the Tacoma area and help plant the seeds of change, Herron said.

“Five years from now, 10 years from now, I think we’re really going to start to see the fullness of what this thing’s about,” he said.

‘It’s so exhausting’

It’s sometimes hard for young people from places that are largely racially homogenous to understand the depth of cultural barriers for outsiders, several Act Six students said. They mentioned everything from finding the right hair products to the kinds of food they like – and they’ve all had run-ins with well-intentioned students who think that racism and poverty are problems of the past.

And then there’s the simple fact that at home in Tacoma, they’re surrounded by a diversity that simply doesn’t exist here, where the county population is more than 90 percent white, and where Whitworth’s enrollment of minority students and those who categorized themselves as “other” is not quite 12 percent.

“We are looked to as the spokesmodels for our family, our race, our ethnicity, our gender, and it sucks,” said Delia Orosco, a 22-year-old senior majoring in political science whose father is from Mexico and whose mother is Native American. “It’s so exhausting.”

When it seems overwhelming, they can always turn to one another, Louie or others, the students said.

“Had I come to Whitworth by myself, I would have been pretty depressed,” said Michael Chansavang, 20. “It would have been a pretty big challenge for me.”

Louie worked in the office of multicultural student services at Washington State University for several years before coming to Whitworth, and she said the level of commitment from Whitworth has been impressive.

“This was like a dream come true,” she said.

The extent of Whitworth’s effort – hundreds of thousands of dollars, relatively extensive staff resources – might be somewhat discouraging for large public institutions battling stagnant graduation rates with less money per student.

Both Herron and Louie said it’s true that the success of Act Six comes largely from the size and scope of the effort, and that public institutions might struggle to come up with similar resources for a lot of minority students.

But they also said that the program’s an investment in leadership, with students working as leaders on campus and eventually in their own neighborhoods. That should pay off over time by helping to change not just the lives of the 41 students, but the overall culture at Whitworth and in Tacoma.

“Yes, it costs an awful lot of money for these 40 students,” Herron said. “But I think it’s a strategic investment that’s about helping create change in the community.”

The leadership component of the program is something the students take seriously. Chansavang said that he decided to apply for Act Six when he saw the questions attached to some of the program material: “Do you want to be a leader? Do you want to be an agent of change? Do you want to impact your community?”

Daniel Bacon is a white 22-year-old from Tacoma working toward a degree in international studies. He said his mom always encouraged him to attend college, but she didn’t have a lot of practical advice to impart about that. Bacon was a student of Herron’s in junior high and high school, and now he’s approaching graduation with a degree in international studies.

He said that among his friends from home, he’s the last one still in school.

“And they were bright kids,” he said. “I don’t know if I would’ve made it if I didn’t have this.”