Professor works to increase campus diversity

When Wisconsin native Dr. John Evans returned to the Midwest three years ago, the political scientist was looking for opportunities to share his time and talents with community groups whose missions matched his interests.

His love of languages and appreciation for the Latino culture soon led Evans — an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire — to Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio, a long established civic organization that serves the Twin Cities' large Latino population.

"I speak Spanish and love the passion and spirit of Latinos," said Evans, who also worked with the Latino community when he lived in Los Angeles. "I asked for an opportunity to be part of CLUES because the work they do is so impressive. I was thrilled when CLUES asked me to be a speaker in a program they have for high school students."

As a volunteer in CLUES' Youth in Action (YA!), Evans shared his expertise on issues relating to political science, talking with the high school students about the importance of Latino community members being knowledgeable about and active in politics.

"My message really is that if they want more resources or more opportunities, Latino communities have to be well informed and work hard to make their voices heard," Evans said, noting that the same goes for other immigrant communities such as the Somali in the Twin Cities. "I encourage the students to understand and help others understand the issues that are important to them and their community so they can be effective advocates for change."

While he was impressed by the intellect and curiosity of the high school students he met through CLUES, he noted many of them were still were unsure about their futures, especially when it came to pursuing higher education, Evans said.

Many of the students' parents had not attended college, making it more difficult for them to help their teens understand how to best think about and access higher education, Evans said. So while the students are bright and encouraged to dream big, he realized they need additional information and experiences as they think about how higher education fits into their post high school plans, he said.

The YA! program — which means Now! in Spanish — encourages and guides students and their families as they make decisions about higher education, said Tanya Zwald, program coordinator, adding that the students named the program YA! to represent their leadership in taking action to overcome the barriers they face in achieving success and pursuing higher education.

"Many of these students are in additional college access programs and many have families that encourage and support them on their educational journey," Zwald said. "But there are some students who have little support or are undecided about attending college and that's where our program steps in."

After working with the YA! teens, Evans realized that as a faculty member at a nearby university, he was in the perfect position to help further encourage Latino students to think about college as they consider their futures, as well as help UW-Eau Claire meet its goal of becoming a more diverse campus.

Working with UW-Eau Claire's Admissions office, Evans has twice brought groups of the YA! students and their parents to campus for a daylong visits so they could get a sense of what it's like to be on a college campus.

"You can talk to them about college but it's a very different conversation once they've actually walked around on a campus," said Evans. "These are students who are smart enough to be doctors or anything else they want to be but they need to get onto a campus before they can really start to see themselves even going to college. And it was good for their parents to walk around the campus, and to learn more about the opportunities their kids would have here."

UW-Eau Claire Admissions director Heather Kretz agrees, noting that research gathered from the thousands of high school students who visit the UW-Eau Claire campus every year shows that the campus visit is the biggest influencer in a student's decision to enroll.

"When high school students talk with our current students, interact with faculty, sit on the campus lawn, eat in the cafeteria or walk across our footbridge, their full range of senses are engaged, and they have a chance to imagine themselves here," Kretz said. "That is pretty powerful."

Even more powerful is when a faculty member like Evans is walking the campus with them, answering their questions and helping them see that they could be successful here, Kretz said.

"When students come to campus and get to connect with the very people who deliver excellence in and out of the classroom, they get to feel the sense of community and personal attention they will have as a student," Kretz said. "Our visitors often walk away with an appreciation for our personal approach to their education, admiration for our campus setting and excitement about the opportunities they could have here. They know we are a place where they can explore their multiple passions, and they'll have personal connections with faculty and staff who assist them in shaping those passions and talents into a career."

Zwald said she appreciates the opportunity to partner with Evans and UW-Eau Claire to further educate the teens and their families about higher education opportunities available in the region.

"A majority of our students' parents encourage them to attend college and the additional support from YA! helps them overcome barriers that might have otherwise disillusioned them about making this dream a reality," Zwald said. "But understanding the educational system in the U.S. still is a barrier for some of our families. Many of the parents do not have college experience so campus visits and interactions with faculty like Dr. Evans are extremely helpful in equipping parents to better and more actively support their teens as they apply to college."

It's clear that the work being done by YA! to help teens achieve their dreams is making a difference, Evans said. The students he met through the program have more information and support around higher education than many Latino teens he met during his years teaching in California, he said.

"In Los Angeles, I had a number of students whose parents sometimes didn't know or realize the opportunities out there for their children," Evans said. "Thanks to the YA! program, teens and their parents here recognize the opportunities higher education provides, even though there may be barriers that make it difficult for them to think they can make it a reality. There are challenges, but we have great work being done by people like Tanya. I'm fortunate to jump on board with their efforts."

The response from the CLUES students and their parents to UW-Eau Claire was positive, Evans said. During the visits, the students were especially interested in the classes, costs and the campus life, while financial aid and transportation to and from the Twin Cities generated the most questions among parents, he said.

"If just a few of these students decide to come here, it would be great for our campus," Evans said. "They are bright and talented students who would have a lot to contribute. Even if they go to another college, I would still consider bringing them here a big success because it might have helped convince them that they could be successful in college. If I played any role in making that happen for even one of these students, I will feel good about it."

Prior to joining UW-Eau Claire's faculty, Evans taught at a large university in Los Angeles that has one of the most diverse student populations in the country. That teaching experience showed him just how much value there is in having students who bring with them very different life experiences and viewpoints, he said.

"My students in California brought such different perspectives to everything that we were studying because they could draw from their own life experiences," Evans said. "Learning is so different if there is a person your age in the classroom who can bring a topic to life because they've lived it. It becomes so much more than just words in a book when you hear real emotion in another student's voice as they talk about how their own experiences relate to what we're studying."

Having that kind of passion and intensity in a classroom energizes classes and helps students think about the world in different ways, Evans said.

"It's much more difficult to fight about ugly things in the world when you have a personal connection to someone who has ties to those beliefs or events," Evans said. "Plus, I think diversity just makes the campus and world a more fun place. New cultures and languages are wonderful."

A more diverse campus community will better prepare all UW-Eau Claire graduates to succeed since employers say they highly value workers with strong interpersonal skills who can navigate many cultures, Evans said.