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Social Action

Ten years ago, a professor sought a way to change a community through her classroom. What started as her hope to continue working with public school kids is today a unique opportunity for students to make a difference in each other’s lives and the world.

Offered every spring, Social Action and the Academic Essay is the brainchild of English professor Cynthia Scheinberg. Oakland high school students make up half the class otherwise filled with Mills women, and together they work to develop their thoughts and writing toward creating change in the world at large.

Ranging from high school freshwoman to a Mills resumer in her last semester, the class is one-of-a-kind here on campus.

“Our focus is not solely on the academic,” said Romeo Garcia, director of the Mills Upward Bound program. “It’s about who you are as an individual, what you think, how you develop that in your writing, and how you use that to motivate other to change.”

“I was looking for ways to maintain my connection to public education,” said Scheinberg, who taught in New York City public schools before coming to Mills. “The other piece was worrying about my English majors having no tools to write about a real world context.”

Looking to “transcend the academic,” Scheinberg said the idea started at a service learning conference, and only a few things have changed in the structure of the class since its beginning. Garcia, himself a product of Oakland’s public schools, has been co-teaching the class alongside her since its third year, and since the general education requirements were revised in Fall 2003, the class now meets the interdisciplinary requirement because of its additional focus on education.

Along with form and content analysis of texts, students also reflect on how the class has changed their overall educational experience. Beginning with personal essays on their life and education, their writing culminates in an essay on what they want to change about the world; their final exam is a community reading of those essays.

The high school students are all in the Upward Bound program, each taking a heavy course load including Saturday classes, typically including one or more Advanced Placement courses. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Upward Bound is a national college-prep program that serves high school students from low-income families and families in which neither parent holds a bachelor's degree, as well as low-income, first-generation military veterans preparing to enter postsecondary education.

Overwhelmingly, the students interviewed said the class has been one of their favorites of all time, and by all accounts, it appears the unique educational approach is working. With dreams of changing the world, students are using their passions and preparing to do so.

“In other classes, when I’m doing these academic essays, they’re just handed in to the professor,” said junior Sarah Pierce, an American studies major. “This way, I’m learning a style of writing that may be useful in the greater world.”

“We’re applying all this theory we’re learning to real life,” said junior Kathleen Stavis, a women’s studies major.

And that theory is being applied in imaginative ways.

When a fellow classmate asked Efren Jimenez to name something he loved, the Skyline High sophomore knew his answer.

Everyone before him named someone close, a parent or friend, but Jimenez said, loud and proud, “Fast cars! I feel like when you’re going fast, and you shift gears, you take the road and get control.”

Later asked in an interview what he might like to change in the world, Jimenez said almost immediately, “Development of hydrogen fuel cell cars.” An Upward Bound student since the 8th grade, Jimenez said he’s often come to campus for a quiet place to study, or visit the UB center; he spent last summer in the Mary Morse building while taking classes “but I never got to interact with students before and it’s been really nice,” he said.

His favorite part of the class is the time spent working with his partner, which a number of other students said.

As in years previous, this year’s 20 students were partnered randomly, with a Mills student and UB student in each pair. “We always say they’re destined to be together,” Scheinberg said. Partners meet together outside of class each week as well, and together keep a private journal about their work in the class, with excerpts turned in for review.

In some cases, it appears true. A partnered pair from the class’s first year returned a few weeks ago to talk to this year’s students. The two still work together on various projects and keep in close contact.

“The idea that college students will be the mentors kind of gets blown away,” Garcia said. It’s usually a two-way street, he said, and “part of the goal was for women at Mills to get a different view of the youth and city of Oakland.”

“They’re both more fearless and know more than I did at the same age,” said senior Alice Kaiser, a resumer in her mid-40s. “They’re good writers already and interested in learning whatever they can.”

Getting to focus on issues that they care about makes a big difference for students as well.

“Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like a class,” said Alan Black, a sophomore at Skyline High. “You just get to speak your mind.”

Vannary Bun, a freshwoman at Oakland High, said that the class has been a fun, albeit challenging change from her regular classes.

While her regular English class has her doing vocabulary tests and book reports, she said, “These questions, you really have to think about what you want to say, but it’s stuff that we actually deal with.”

Garcia said what’s great about the class is that the UB students go back to their regular school and expect more of their teachers. “For many, this is the first time someone has asked them what they feel or what they think.”

But the future of classes like this one may be in jeopardy. In February, President Bush proposed cutting all federal funding for the Upward Bound program, to be diverted into funding for the No Child Left Behind Act. Mills has one of the largest and most successful Upward Bound programs in the country

A Mills alum and student himself, Garcia received his teaching credentials and master’s from Mills, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in education here, along with his responsibilities as director of the TRiO programs, including Upward Bound and Educational Talent Search.

Garcia was recently instrumental in securing a grant for Mills to begin an Oakland public charter high school.