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Chance of a Lifetime

Council of Youth Research presents work, impact at AERA conference in Denver.

by Claudia Bustamante, (May 4, 2010), UCLA IDEA


Long after Woodrow Wilson High rang the final bell, five students stayed late last week to put the final touches on a presentation that would be heard by hundreds of researchers across the country.

It was 5:45 p.m. Wednesday and the students, guided by teacher Veronica Garcia, edited a PowerPoint presentation slide by slide, glued a poster board and went over their speaking roles for Saturday.

“To be able to say something and be heard—I think it’s a life-changer,” said Moses Sanchez, 17, about attending the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference, which ends today, in Denver.

AERA is the largest audience to date for the Wilson students and the rest of the Council of Youth Research, a partnership between UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access and the Los Angeles Unified School District that provides tools for students to research school and community issues directly affecting them.

Twenty-seven students from Wilson, Roosevelt, Crenshaw, Locke and Manual Arts high schools spent last summer learning graduate-level research methods at UCLA. They took those skills onto their campuses to research how the current economic crisis was impacting the ability of youth to advance toward college. Throughout the year, the council students have presented their findings to City Hall, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines, their family and peers.

Nicole Mirra, council coordinator and UCLA graduate student, said the opportunity to present at a national conference was exciting.

“Sometimes (the research) is a grind. Sometimes you feel you’re just talking,” Mirra said. “It’s great for them to realize that people are listening and beyond Los Angeles.”
On Saturday, a two-hour session was devoted to the work of the council—including high school students, teachers, UCLA graduate student researchers and faculty. Students also participated in a larger session on youth research Sunday.

“Asking young people to step up”

Garcia, who began leading the Wilson student group three years ago, had experience working with student researchers in Boston and knew the type of students she wanted involved.

The students in the group have a range of abilities—from struggling grades to advanced-placement course loads. But all of them share an interest in getting involved and determination to see it through to the end.

“They have to believe they can change,” she said. “I think what we’re doing is hard. We’re asking young people to step up and motivate their peers who think negatively like they used to.”

“What can we do?”

This year’s research topic was ripe for negativity—budget cuts and education. Many had minimal understanding of the deep impacts of the economic crisis on their education and their communities.

“I had heard about it but didn’t pay attention,” Moses said.

Junior Erick Palacio, 16, felt the same. Erick said he knew of friends’ parents who had lost jobs, but was unaware how bad it was.

“I wouldn’t really understand or I’d notice but wouldn’t care,” he said about his perception before joining the council this year. “I notice little things now.”

But more than exposing the students to a broader worldview, the council has helped them blossom as independent thinkers and active community members.

Zuri Morales, 18, who will attend Pasadena City College after graduation, said she learned to develop her voice through the council.

Isaac Jimenez, 18, gained self-confidence. Garcia said he has transformed himself from a shy student to a leader within the group over the last two years.

“I learned that I have a voice, that I can make a difference,” said Isaac, who will attend California State University Los Angeles this fall. “I learned to be a critical thinker.”

Dilcia Gomez, 17, who heads to Fresno City College this fall, learned to look past the negativity.

“Before I’d say, ‘There’s nothing you can do,’” she said about confronting obstacles and crises.

But now, Dilcia’s first question is, “What can we do?”

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