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Interview with Michael Gomez, Canal Alliance UP! High school Program Supervisor

June 30, 2020

By ALEJANDRO LARA | June 30, 2020 at 3:45 pm

As we celebrate the graduations of UP! students from high school and college, we sat down with Michael Gomez to talk about what it means for him to see his students graduate and go off to college.

Michael Gomez, UP! High School Program Supervisor
Michael Gomez

Canal Alliance (CA): What do students want to study or major in? Has shelter-in-place (SIP) impacted what students want to study?

Michael Gomez (MG): The students want to study a variety of subjects: one wants to study computer science, three are interested in criminal justice, one in business, and one is planning to study architecture and art history, but they may also double or triple major in psychology and/or philosophy.

With regard to shelter-in-place, the plan for now is that the fall semester will be entirely online, so students who were planning to leave home for college will now be staying at home. While that affects financial aid because they’re no longer paying for room and board, for the most part, all students will attend the school they were planning to attend in hopes that in future years they can spend their time on campus.

Shelter-in-place has definitely made things more challenging. All of the counselor meetings and summer orientations that students normally do in person have also been canceled or moved online. The student that is considering a double or triple major was supposed to have a summer program on campus through the educational opportunity program. College of Marin has a summer program, called ‘Summer Bridge’, that was also impacted. So, students either have an online version, or it’s just been canceled entirely. As a result, it’s been harder for the students to get a sense of what the major will look like when they arrive on campus. But even considering all that, all of our students will be doing remote learning, staying at home for the fall semester, but still at the universities and with the majors they chose.

CA: What are your thoughts on the University of California (UC) schools announcing that they’ll have a hybrid learning model versus California State Universities (CSU) campus, where classes will be held online?

MG: A hybrid model is a good model if they can put the right protocols in place. At the moment, UCs are only allowing students who are doing lab courses like science courses or those that require in person contact to go into class, everything else will be online. While I understand the necessity for that, I’m not sure how effectively it can be implemented, particularly at a very large school like UC Santa Barbara.

CA: Are you worried about students going off to college during a pandemic?

MG: It’s a hard transition for any student to go to college, especially if that means leaving home. Many of our students stay close for that reason. I am concerned about the student going to UC Santa Barbara, which will be a big change in environment, and will require them to navigate the fundamentals of college, on top of them having to learn what they need to become an adult; I worry about all of that on top of trying to maintain their own safety with COVID. The combination definitely presents a challenge for students to navigate on their own.

CA: What are some common challenges that confront graduating students?

MG: Two of the biggest things are time management and financial readiness. At UP!, we try to walk students through the various responsibilities they will face, including their financial responsibilities, living independently, their financial aid and how they should allocate that towards books, personal expenses, and food. These things are challenging for any student, and particularly for students who are the first in their families to go to college. So that’s something we emphasize and offer workshops for, but it’s still a challenge, as is time management. We provide a lot of support in the UP! program to help them learn about all the things they need to know for college. Once they get to college, we offer checkups over the phone or by video, to help them handle all those things in their first semester that are reoccurring challenges.

CA: Do the students that graduate from UP! keep in touch with each other after they all go off to college?

MG: The past two graduating classes have had a group chat, so some keep in contact, like the class from two years ago when a number of them went to Santa Rose Junior College. They had classes together and started this leadership group that would regularly meet outside of school. That was very encouraging – since they had that community that already existed from their time together in the UP! program – they continued to foster it in college. The students that venture further away tend to be less communicative. But, two students went to Humboldt State University and they studied together and talked about their experiences coming from the Canal and then moving away to Humboldt, which is a different cultural experience. While it’s not one hundred percent, some sense of community remains after they graduate.

CA: What does it feel like for you to see these students graduate and go off to college?

MG: It feels like a blessing and a privilege. I have had a lot of cool experiences in my life prior to working at Canal Alliance and prior to working with students. But far and away, none of them compare to being at that graduation ceremony and being with those students as they reach that milestone in their life. And these students in particular, they were all freshmen my first year working as a staff member at Canal Alliance, so I’ve literally seen them grow up from their first day of high school to their last day of high school. It’s overwhelming how proud and impressed I am at their resilience – it’s actually been the most profound experience of my life to watch these kids grow up and go off to start doing adult thing and become independent.

CA: How do students feel about not having a typical graduation ceremony this year?

MG: I’ve heard a lot of mixed reviews. Their initial reaction was, “oh, I’m not that worried about it. I was worried about tripping when I walked across the stage anyway. I don’t need that attention. It’s fine.” However, I think the closer to the actual graduation they got, they kind of felt the significance of having that acknowledgment. While Canal is doing things to honor them, I think they’re disappointed because it is such a big deal for them being first-generation students. Graduation is this well-designed ceremony to acknowledge all the struggles and challenges from a student’s perspective that it took to get this far. Especially for them being low-income Latinx youth from immigrant families. I think there is disappointment in missing that acknowledgment, but they’ve all been pretty strong.

CA: How is Canal Alliance celebrating the students?

MG: The morning before graduation, we had all the students to come in at separate times, because of COVID, to take pictures with a professional photographer in their caps and gowns and with their families. We got them each a laptop so that they’re prepared for college and can do the coursework that they need to complete. We also gave them a gift card so they can have nice dinner with their families to celebrate. We also made a video to acknowledge their accomplishments. I’ll be writing individual letters to all of them. Many of our volunteers that worked at Canal Alliance have also written letters to our seniors. So, we have quite a few things to acknowledge them and make it significant and again, capture that memory with professional photos.

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