On Veteran’s Day, members of the Vassar community and local young students gathered together to explore college as a post-high school path. Access to higher education remains an issue when profound differences of society and culture open up between those who believe that college can play a role in their future and those who do not. Vassar’s Transitions Program and Vassar After School Tutoring (VAST) welcomed middle and high school students from various school districts across New York State to visit and experience daily life on the campus.
The middle and high school students shadowed Vassar students, professors and admissions counselors throughout the day to learn about daily life on campus and how best to prepare for the academic and social environment of higher education. Director of Transitions and Associate Dean of Students Luis Inoa linked the Veteran’s Day program to the mission of Vassar’s Transitions Program, reflecting, “The motivation is simple. We are trying to position Transitions at Vassar to be a resource for first-generation, low-income and undocumented students at Vassar and in the Hudson Valley. I believe that our education is better when we have an intimate connection to the lives beyond the gates of Vassar.” Inoa continued, “There was a moment, during a tour when one of the high school students felt as if she was peering into her future. She met someone who looked like her and who was interested in journalism. To understand your future as possible is really very powerful.”
The Veteran’s Day program, called the Beyond the Gates Initiative, paired middle and high school students with Vassar students currently active in Transitions and VAST through similar academic and vocational interests, cultural and socioeconomic family backgrounds, gender and sexuality, languages spoken as well as sports and hobbies. Considering the Veteran’s Day program in the context of student-to-student tutoring and other outreach programs, VAST Coordinator Maximilian Cordeiro said, “Beyond the Gates is a collaborative project between VAST and Transitions, with Luis Inoa as my Administrative partner. This is a collaboration still in the making, and Friday, Nov. 11 was the first of hopefully many projects brought to life through Beyond the Gates.”
Sophomore Advisor to Transitions and VSA Chair of First Year Programs Cody Duane Harmon ’19 stated, “My experience in the Transitions Program has been nothing short of amazing! I cannot describe how wonderful being a part of this program has helped me grow to a person I have grown to love more.” Citing the influence of his own family background on the formation of self and identity, Harmon elaborated, “Based on my grandmother’s teachings to me as a child, she always encouraged me to give back in whatever ways possible and never forget where I come from. The Transitions program allows me to do what my grandmother has charged me to do all these years plus more.”
Inoa reflected on his interactions with the middle and high school students, noting, “I would like to be clear—their presence and time on campus was just as much a gift to us. It was really an honor to listen and build community with such amazing and gifted students. Our own Vassar ‘buddies’ were just as tremendous.” Describing the transition from high school to college, Harmon agreed, “As far as my experience goes with advising first-year students, they are by far the best group of human beings. I am honored to get the chance to know them beyond surface measures. Being able to see their energy and poise each day is something I use to encourage myself and others.” Harmon continued, “It is actually funny because the advising works both ways: the first-years are teaching me, challenging me and encouraging me in ways I did not expect in this short space of time. I cannot overstate how immensely proud I am of each of them individually and collectively as a cohort. Also, advising first-year students is only one small part of the program. It is the relationships that we build with each other that are most rewarding.”
Unlike some of Vassar’s other outreach programs, such as VAST’s extensive involvement in Poughkeepsie Middle School, Beyond the Gates reached beyond the immediate vicinity of the campus. Inoa elaborated, “The students that came to Vassar on Friday were not solely from Poughkeepsie … The students belonged to one of two programs: Youth Arts Group or the Youth Economic Group. There were 14 students there on Friday, all from various parts of New York—Monticello, Fallkill, Middletown, Newburgh.”
Providing further details about the organizations supporting the young students, Cordeiro explained, “Youth Arts Group (YAG) and Youth Economic Group (YEG) are two of several youth advocacy programs under Rural and Migrant Ministries (RMM), which is a statewide, non-profit organization working for the creation of a just, rural New York State through nurturing leadership and standing with the disenfranchised, especially farmworkers and rural workers. Most of the YAG/YEG students who came to Vassar last Friday similarly came from rural, low-income, and in some cases undocumented, families throughout the Hudson Valley.”
In 2009, a study by the nonprofit education and research organization Fiscal Policy Institute, based in Albany, estimated that immigrants account for 13 percent of the population and 16 percent of the economic productivity of New York State. Furthermore, the study found that approximately 16 percent of immigrants in New York State, or two percent of the total state population, are undocumented. Organizations like YAG and YEG under RMM represent a coalition of many different immigrant nationalities, ranging from Mexico at nine percent of all immigrants, to Italy at six percent, India at five percent, Haiti at three percent and Poland at two percent (Fiscal Policy Institute, “Immigrants and the Hudson Valley Economy,” 12.31.09). Since 2009, these figures have been confirmed by a separate study led by the Washington D.C.-based Pew Research Center, which found that the steady increase in the number of unauthorized immigrants throughout the 1990s and 2000s recently stabilized from 2009 to 2014 (Pew Research Center, “Unauthorized immigrant population stable for half a decade,” 09.21.16).
Harmon described his own experience in the area, saying, “The City and Town of Poughkeepsie [are] diverse by statistics but in my two years in Poughkeepsie, I have not witnessed it so much. Honestly, I am excited when I see another person who looks like me on the street, in the store or on campus. Before I arrived to Poughkeepsie, I was warned not to venture off Main Street in the late day or evening. But being the researcher I am, I wanted my own experience to have and not someone else’s. I have often find comfort in these ‘places to avoid’ and in trying to talk through the walls that Vassar still has with community members.”
The Beyond the Gates Initiative and other outreach programs continue to depend on the goodwill and high spirits of students, faculty and members of the local community. Inoa concluded, “I think VC students have opportunities to get involved. There is a choice to engage or not engage. What I would like to do with Transitions is to make the intimate connection a core and organic part of program. We are not there yet but Friday moved us closer.” Reflecting a similar sentiment about the programs organized by the College, Harmon asserted, “My belief is that college must be authentic in its approach with strengthening ties … My grandmother emphasized to me that ‘Everyone is someone. They are meant to be valued, to be loved, to be appreciated.’ I believe in that simplistic approach with people … I always remind myself that honesty is the best policy and consider what am I representing as an individual and an individual that attends Vassar. These have served me well in establishing relationships with people in and out of the community because it is authentic.”