Back when Nathan Oalican was going to Phineas Bates Elementary in Roslindale, his teacher, Joel Clark, invited a Harvard student to visit class one day.
“I vividly remember how he spoke about how he was once just like us — from Boston — and was once in Mr. Clark’s class,” said Oalican ’21. “He told us about how he worked hard, studied hard, and how that drive got him into College. I was only 10 or 11, but it clicked. It backed up what Mr. Clark was always saying to us about working hard, and how taking our education seriously would lead to results we could be proud of.”
Being shown the path worked for Oalican, and it turns out he’s not alone.
Studies have found that students begin envisioning themselves as going — or not going — to college as early as middle school. When they see someone who looks like them, or who has a background similar to theirs, attending college begins to feel less foreign and more possible.
It was in response to such findings that Harvard created Project Teach about two decades ago to ensure that students have the tools and support they need to foster the belief that higher education will be part of their future. The program has reached more than 6,800 seventh-grade students over the years in the neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton and throughout Cambridge. Building on that success, the initiative has also expanded to include a component for eighth-graders, one for high school juniors, and later this fall, one for sixth-graders.
“Envisioning oneself as a college student helps young people begin college planning,” writes Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Mandy Savitz-Romer. In “Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success,” Savitz-Romer and her co-author, Suzanne Bouffard, argue that prior research by developmental psychologists on identity development can be applied to both youth and the process of developing a “college-going identity.”
Savitz-Romer, a former school counselor, and Bouffard suggest that several components are critical in promoting a college-going culture among students; communication about college goals and terminology; sharing college information and resources; a sense of partnership with college students, faculty, and the college itself; and the ongoing involvement of family.
Every year Project Teach works with seventh-graders from nearly a dozen public schools. A cornerstone of the program is a day on Harvard’s campus, where the students get a tour and a chance to take part in a specially-designed class of their choosing. The options typically include things like science-based sessions, complete with experiments; backstage workshops at the American Repertory Theater; talks on Russian history; and even examinations of the history and culture of hip-hop.