The University of Texas at Austin Supports Diverse Youth Via Community Service

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Diversity Champions exemplify an unyielding commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout their campus communities, across academic programs, and at the highest administrative levels.
INSIGHT Into Diversity selected institutions that rank in the top tier of past Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award recipients. 

At the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), diversity and community service go hand in hand.

While the university offers a multitude of programs to serve the wide-ranging needs of its 50,000-plus students, it also maintains a strong commitment to supporting underserved communities in Austin and across the state. In fact, many of the 50 initiatives and programs housed within UT Austin’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE) are centered on service-learning and volunteer opportunities to encourage students to become actively engaged in their local communities.

[Above: The South Mall Tower on UT Austin’s main campus]

“At the University of Texas, we want to teach civic and community responsibility to our students — the responsibility for each other, but also for the community they live in,” says Erica Saenz, associate vice president for community and external relations. “That includes being aware of the disparities that exist and what the university and they as individuals can do to alleviate social injustices.”

Supporting Men of Color 
The DDCE’s Longhorn Campaign for Men of Color (LCMC) consists of several programs dedicated to positively transforming the lives of African American and Latino men and boys through research, mentorship, and academic support services.

UT Austin student mentors lead students from Gus Garcia Leadership Academy on a tour of the university’s campus during a Project MALES summer session. (photo by Leslie Blair)

One such program, the African American Male Research Initiative (AAMRI), is a faculty-led program that centers on “the holistic development of black students on UT Austin’s campus,” says Ryan Sutton, PhD, a member of the AAMRI leadership team and a UT Austin postdoctoral fellow. In addition to conducting research on best practices for promoting the success of young African American men and boys, the initiative provides a variety of events and services for these students; these include, but are not limited to, an orientation, weekly events that allow them to socialize and discuss issues that affect them as minority male students, and a retreat that brings together approximately 100 men from area universities to focus on personal development, says Sutton. This year, AAMRI will also host its first summer academy for African American male middle and high school students.

A middle school student in UT Austin’s Project MALES program attends the GAAMBK’s annual SXSWedu event, which fosters innovation in learning.

Similarly, Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success), another program under the LCMC umbrella, concentrates on improving academic success for Latino boys and men at UT Austin, in the local community, and nationwide. While also maintaining a research focus on broader issues affecting this demographic, the initiative includes a mentorship component for UT Austin students. Project MALES participants not only receive mentoring and advising during their time at the university but also participate in a service-learning course that requires that they mentor male Latino students in 10 underserved area schools.

AAMRI and Project MALES participants are also presented with additional opportunities to help young men not unlike themselves. Both programs work with the Greater Austin Area My Brother’s Keeper (GAAMBK) initiative to connect UT Austin minority male students with children in the community, says Sutton, who serves as program director of the initiative. Launched in 2015 in response to the national My Brother’s Keeper initiative developed by President Barack Obama, the GAAMBK is a partnership between UT Austin, the City of Austin, Travis County, and community organizations that focuses on improving the lives of and educational outcomes for African American and Latino youth. One way to do this, Sutton says, is by ensuring they have access to mentors who can serve as positive role models and provide them much-needed emotional support and guidance.

However, the experience of mentoring often benefits both participants, Sutton says, and the opportunity to serve as role models for young men of similar backgrounds can be a life-changing experience for the UT Austin students. “A lot of these young men have a natural interest, or [one] based on their own experiences, in extending mentorship to the next generation,” says Sutton. “They end up finding this intrinsic motivation to help out on a deeper level.”

Furthermore, such mentorships play a critical role in helping GAAMBK achieve its mission of addressing the mental health disparities faced by minority children, who, Sutton says, may be more vulnerable to stress-induced psychological issues such as PTSD as a result of exposure to community violence. “Research shows that mentorship can decrease psychological symptoms like anxiety and increase psychological functioning for a lot of these youth,” he says. “So while these communities may not always have access to mental health services, we can identify mentorship programs and potential mentors that can have just as great of an impact.”

Promoting the Pre-K to PhD Pipeline

Erica Saenz participates alongside students in The Project, UT Austin’s annual day of service. (photo by Bret Brookshire)

UT Austin’s focus on helping underserved youth expands far beyond any single underrepresented group or community, as the DDCE oversees dozens of programs designed to help children throughout the state succeed at every level along the pre-K to PhD pipeline.

“Our goal is that a student will start with our pre-K initiatives and then, years later, walk across the stage at UT Austin to receive his or her terminal degree,” says Gregory J. Vincent, EdD, JD, vice president for diversity and community engagement.

Another DDCE program, the Neighborhood Longhorns Program (NLP), is an educational-incentive and college-readiness initiative that has helped increase the number of underserved students in the education pipeline over the past 25 years. NLP operates in approximately 33 Title I schools — institutions that have a high percentage of students from low-income families — in Austin and central Texas.

NLP staff and student volunteers provide free after-school care and on-site tutoring at local schools. Special field trips to UT Austin’s campus are offered to incentivize the more than 5,000 students participating in the program. “Assuming they meet the academic goals, they’re able to engage in some fun activities on campus,” says Vincent. These activities include taking campus tours, attending cultural and athletic events, and meeting UT Austin student-athletes.

The experiences serve a dual purpose of encouraging and rewarding students for doing well academically while also introducing them to the often unfamiliar world of higher education, Vincent says. “Neighborhood Longhorns is really designed to help students move into the next level of excellence,” he says, adding that many of them go on to participate in DDCE college-readiness programs.

In line with the university’s commitment to public service, many of the DDCE’s programs engage UT Austin students in service-learning and volunteer opportunities that allow them to advise, tutor, and mentor youth in underserved communities. “Being engaged with K-12 and with the community is part of our DNA,” says Vincent. “That’s part of our responsibility to serve the people of Texas.”

Academic Service-Learning

UT Austin students help plant a community garden in the city’s Rundberg neighborhood.

In addition to the many opportunities to give back to the community via mentoring and tutoring, UT Austin students are encouraged to get involved in other ways. The DDCE, overseeing all academic service-learning programs at the university, works closely with faculty members to design curricula that include community service projects.

“Academic service-learning is very important to us,” says Saenz, “because we’re able to connect with all the colleges and schools across UT.” For example, students in the Department of Computer Science participate in community service through the Google Community Leaders program; UT Austin students, in partnership with Google and other area colleges, have worked on projects with local nonprofits that include improving connectivity in areas with limited computer and internet access and teaching digital literacy to adult learners.

The DDCE also offers opportunities for students to participate in more traditional community service in underserved neighborhoods, such as beautification and restoration projects. The Restore Rundberg and the Colony Park Sustainable Community initiatives are two large-scale restoration projects undertaken by the university in recent years. In Colony Park — an area considered a “food desert” because of its lack of grocery stores — students planted community gardens that serve as a sustainable source of fresh produce. For the Restore Rundberg initiative, UT Austin students and faculty worked alongside police officers and volunteers to provide social services to the local homeless population.

For both projects, members of the university community worked closely with local organizations and residents to determine what types of activities would most benefit the communities. “Students participated in many things with those initiatives, … painting walls and mending fences — anything the residents said was needed,” Saenz says.

Getting students on the ground working with underserved populations, with whom they may not typically interact, is a key aspect of the university’s commitment to public service. Such interactions, Saenz says, not only benefit those populations and the communities in which they live, but also provide invaluable educational experiences for students.

“Exposing students to these different perspectives enriches their understanding of their place in society,” she says. “That’s why academic service-learning and getting out into these communities are so important to us.”●

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. The University of Texas at Austin is a 2012-2016 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.