UC San Diego students conduct outreach at Rosa Parks Elementary School.

Around the Pier: Reaching New Heights

Scripps-led Rosa Parks Tutoring Program educates youth in City Heights

Every Saturday, the City Heights Farmers’ Market is buzzing with activity as community members buy and sell fresh produce, baked goods, crafts, and other items.

And every Saturday, just steps away from the busy stalls, you’ll find University of California San Diego graduate students tutoring youngsters from Rosa Parks Elementary School in the City Heights/Weingart Branch Library.

The volunteer-led Rosa Parks Tutoring Program was created in 2010 by graduate students at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. The City Heights-based program has grown over the years and now includes volunteers from other groups and departments at UC San Diego, including the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE). (View photo gallery.)

City Heights is one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in San Diego, housing large refugee populations from Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. The median income of City Heights is roughly half of the city’s overall average.

Through the free Rosa Parks Tutoring Program, student volunteers at UC San Diego promote diversity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and seek to give back to a community facing numerous economic and social challenges.

During the 2017-2018 academic year, the tutoring program served 48 Rosa Parks students, with 10 to 20 students receiving hour-long tutoring sessions each weekend. The group was recently honored for its outreach efforts by UC San Diego’s Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action and Diversity Awards Program.

Principal organizer Julia Dohner said the tutoring sessions have been a formative part of her time at UC San Diego.

“There’s something very centering about it and it helps remind me that there's this world outside of what we do here in graduate school,” said Dohner, a Scripps student studying marine chemistry and geochemistry. “I know I'm in a position of immense privilege and my path here was paved much more solidly than for many, so while I have the opportunity and while I’m here, I want to find ways to help these young students and show them that there are people out there cheering for them.”

Scripps graduate students Isabella Arzeno and Gabriel Castro and MAE student Jose Luis Ortiz Tarín currently serve alongside Dohner as principal organizers of the Rosa Parks Tutoring Program.

“I grew up in Puerto Rico, so I'm very aware of the lack of diversity in higher education. I know that a lot of it has to do with socioeconomic disparities, in the U.S. especially,” said Arzeno, who is studying physical oceanography. “I decided to get a PhD so that I could start to increase diversity in the sciences, but it would be very selfish if I just did that for myself, and my parents always taught me that education was really important. So it’s been rewarding to look at a community that needs help —just like any other community, but it doesn't have the resources—to get that help and try to make sure that these students live to their fullest capacity.”

The seeds for what would later become the Rosa Parks Tutoring Program were planted in 2009 through the efforts of two outreach programs (now defunct) housed at Scripps, the Grassroots Diversity Action Working Group (GDAWG) and the Team for Inclusion and Diversity in Education and Science (TIDES).

Volunteers with GDAWG and TIDES began hosting a science booth at the Saturday farmers’ market in City Heights as a way to reach out to underserved communities. The booth was equipped with science and exploration activities and displays used by the education department at Birch Aquarium at Scripps. Some passers-by were interested in the science, but volunteers soon realized that they were mainly attracting families and concerned parents who were searching for basic tutoring and homework help for their children.

A woman tutors a child, who is reading from a book.
Scripps graduate student Isabella Arzeno tutors a student.

The volunteers soon switched gears and began working with teachers, parents, and social workers at the nearby Rosa Parks Elementary School to offer free tutoring services to the school’s most at-risk students, ranging from first- to fifth-graders. After some trial and error, the tutors found the most convenient location to host the weekend sessions was the nearby City Heights/Weingart Branch Library, the busiest city library for public computer usage in San Diego. During the one-hour sessions, tutors work with students on homework and help them gain proficiency in reading, writing, math, and language.

Dohner said that one big challenge for the tutors is that a lot of the students are greatly mismatched between their age, their grade, and their reading/comprehension level.

“The way we approach tutoring is to get a sense of the student and what they're interested in, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, and kind of go from there rather than really viewing it in the context of their level in class and where they need to be,” said Dohner.

Now considered an official UC San Diego student organization, the Rosa Parks Tutoring Program has 23 volunteers, who together tutored a total of 235 hours in the 2017-2018 academic year. The organizers hope to attract more students so they can further expand their reach. Any graduate student at UC San Diego can apply to become a tutor with the program by contacting RPTPatUCSD@gmail.com.

Reflecting upon her work with the tutoring program, Arzeno said she’s inspired by the students but she’s motivated even more by the parents.

“They care a lot about giving their kids a better life,” said Arzeno. “To be able to offer a service like this, to interact with parents, interact with the kids, to let them know that we're on their side, it’s really important for me because I know that they can make it. They just need that little push to beat the odds against them.”

Related Image Gallery: Rosa Parks Tutoring Program

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.