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Opinion: UC must take initiative, sponsor tutoring programs to help kids navigate current events

(Emily Dembinski/Illustrations Director)

By Deepto Mizan

Sept. 11, 2020 5:29 p.m.

This year has seen a series of trials and tribulations on a global scale.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given way to a new, socially distanced world that has changed our way of life. Protests against police brutality and state-sanctioned violence have erupted across the United States and expanded internationally. To make matters worse, government officials have been unwilling or unable to rise up. All of this has led to a world of confusion and chaos, especially in the eyes of children.

While it may seem easy to chalk recent events up to fate, they are symptomatic of a society unprepared to fully confront historical institutions of injustice. It’s no coincidence that racial justice activists are taking to the streets during a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted communities of color.

We’re all looking for answers. And one solution may lie in an unexpected place – elementary and middle school classrooms.

In the midst of a chaotic turn of events, young students are facing a frustrating reality. Friends have become a series of texts, conflicting news headlines and encounters with violence and loss are commonplace.

Educational and developmental programs can help make social inequities less abstract, while also addressing difficulties associated with such troubling times by providing clarity, guidance and resources.

As young students come to terms with a changed world, the University of California has a moral obligation to guide them along a path of understanding. This means sponsoring virtual volunteering and tutorship programs with local schools that can open up important discussions about current events. As scholars on the forefront of their respective fields, leading researchers and university students can help inspire a desire for social justice among young adults.

And programs that can serve as a model already exist.

Marjorie Orellana leads research at the UCLA Community School, where undergraduate students in specific education research group classes learn to talk and play with young children to open up dialogue about social relationships, race, empathy and active listening.

“Through play, questions such as, ‘What does race mean?’ or, ‘What does a certain experience entail?’ can arise and be discussed,” said Orellana, a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.

It’s clear that young children are very perceptive to the world around them and can comprehend social struggles, Orellana added. Programs that enable these children to question and develop their understanding of such issues can further their natural curiosity, she said.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, the UC must help convert these programs onto a virtual platform. Such initiatives may be one of the only avenues children have to better understand their world in an age of virtual learning.

John Rogers, a professor at the UCLA GSEIS, said affirming young students’ experiences and their relationships to their community strengthens their knowledge of the world around them.

“When entering into those discussions, it’s important to hear what those young students are thinking about and to allow them to formulate their own ideas that may be fuzzy at first,” Rogers said.

This form of education can give students the skills to thoroughly examine social ills and explore solutions. It can also encourage greater participation in voting and public advocacy as students grow older.

But the UC shouldn’t stop there. It can use its diverse and extensive community to establish mentorship networks for prospective students, especially those who may lack the resources to access higher education.

Community service is another area of untapped potential. Student-led volunteering organizations have successfully continued their efforts during the pandemic and can provide a model for the UC to develop educational programs for young children.

Better yet, they can help the university to carry out its mission.

Merzia Subhan, the co-executive director of Project Literacy, a UCLA student-run organization that helps underprivileged students across Los Angeles, said the club helps to create spaces for children to openly discuss public and personal issues with college students. The program is planning to address current events to continue helping its students.

“We’re planning to address topics such as the COVID-19 pandemic and some of the false information being spread as well to make sure students understand the situation better,” Subhan, a fourth-year psychobiology student, said.

The UC should make a conscious effort to better support and publicize these organizations during a time when community service is more important than ever.

It is true that providing context and further history lessons can only establish a basis for understanding society at one point in time, as many factors are at play. The UC’s oncoming $1.2 billion in losses may also place a limit on how much support is available. However, one look at 2020 shows the considerable damage a lack of contextual understanding can do. A blatant disregard for systemic troubles can only exacerbate adversity and hinder justice.

Structural change is not a short-term project – it’s an intergenerational commitment that involves communities and universities alike.

But for the events of 2020 to cause real change, we all must learn from it – especially our future cohort of change makers.

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Deepto Mizan | Opinion columnist
Mizan is an Opinion columnist.
Mizan is an Opinion columnist.
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