Willamette professors volunteer at academy summer camps

by Tina Owen,

The camps offer local high-schoolers a firsthand glimpse of life as a college student.

  • Academy student smiles while sitting in a classroom at a table
  • A professor stands before Willamette Academy students teaching
  • Students working at desks
  • A student sits pensively at a desk
  • Students at desks looking at professor
  • Students at desks looking at professor
  • A student with an open laptop reads a notebook
  • A student sitting under a tree writes in a notebook
  • A student reclining on the pavement works in a notebook in Jackson Plaza
  • Students sitting on the bank of the Mill Stream write in notebooks
  • A teacher helps two students who sit at desks with open laptops

A murmur of voices fills Walton 230, as some 20 students decipher subtle meanings in an 8th-century Chinese poem, “War Chariots.” Heads bent over the text, pencils in hand to scribble notes, students share ideas and insights with their study partners.

“Alright, folks, let’s see what we’ve got,” says Cecily McCaffrey, the professor teaching the course on “Fantastic Tales from China.”

The scene may appear unremarkable, but this is no ordinary class — and these are not Willamette University students. McCaffrey, an associate professor of history at Willamette, has given up part of her summer to teach 58 10th- and 11th-graders in a camp organized by Willamette Academy. The nine-day residential summer camp not only provides academy students with a high-quality educational experience; crucially, it also helps students see higher education as a viable part of their future.

“Being true to our program purpose, to demystify the college experience, the more access and time our students are able to spend with Willamette University professors the better,” says Emilio Solano ’09, executive director of Willamette Academy, a college access program supported by the university.

“The course content is important, but even more critical is that our students begin to see what professors are like and get a window into what they teach and how they teach it. The summer camps further connect the academy to the greater Willamette community and provide our students with access to another amazing resource — Willamette faculty members.”

Increased commitment from faculty

Willamette professors have volunteered previously with the academy. Emily Drew, associate professor of sociology and ethnic studies, has taught seniors a class on “Critical (Re) Thinking About Education” for several years. McCaffrey and Dave Craig, professor of biology, both taught in the summer camp in 2017 and returned again this year, when they were joined by newcomer Josh Laison, professor of mathematics. Catalina de Onís, assistant professor of civic communication and media, also taught for the first time this year, offering 8th- and 9th-graders a course on “Identity, Community, and Belonging.”

With Laison, Craig and McCaffrey teaching math, science, and reading and writing, 2018 marks the first year that all three core courses were led by Willamette professors rather than local high school teachers and community members.

Academy students undoubtedly benefit from the summer camps. Kevin Garcia Vargas, a junior at West Salem High School, appreciated the chance to bond with peers, overcome his shyness and experience residential life on a college campus. While he enjoyed all the courses, he particularly appreciated the science class. Every day, Craig and his students waded in the Mill Stream or explored the campus grounds with binoculars in search of birds and other animal species.

“I could see Professor Craig’s enthusiasm in teaching us about birds and the ecosystem around us,” says Vargas. “All of the courses were amazing and really fun. I took a lot of knowledge from them that I will apply when I go back to school.”  

Andrea Garcia Torres, a junior at South Salem High School, found it challenging to be away from her close family for a week, although she notes it was good preparation for when she goes to college. She was also initially intimidated by the prospect of being taught by university professors.

“After getting to know the professors, we felt welcome and comfortable around them, and we wanted to be in class for longer than the limited time we had,” she says. “We all appreciated that the professors volunteered to teach us. They brought both fun and learning to the classroom, and it was truly an amazing experience.”

Learning from each other

De Onís and three research assistants, Willamette students Olivia Orosco, Maria Saldaña Suastes and Karmen Chavez-Sam, used experiential-learning activities to help academy students explore their relationships to identity and belonging. Students visited the university archives, created zines and produced mini-shows at CCTV.

De Onís and the Willamette students with whom she collaborates have offered workshops to academy students previously through La Chispa, an environmental justice communication project de Onís coordinates.

“Willamette University's relationship with Willamette Academy is one of the most important partnerships we have. As an institution committed to increasing opportunities for college access and resource-sharing, we must support and strengthen the academy so that our university membership actually represents the many communities and identities in Salem-Keizer and beyond,” says de Onís. “I love how the summer program offers academy and WU students, faculty and staff opportunities to learn from each other.”

Laison says he volunteered for the camp because “I wanted to see what I do have a bigger impact on the world.” He particularly wanted to break down misconceptions about math being hard, boring or not relevant to people’s lives. As professors are free to choose their own class content for the summer camps, Laison introduced the students to graph theory, the subject of his research at Willamette, which uses mathematical structures to explore relationships between objects. He showed how the theory applies to real-world issues, such as how airlines plan routes to provide passengers with the fewest number of layovers.

“The students just dived in,” says Laison. “Within the first day, they were having fun working on math problems that haven’t been solved yet.”

To liven up the class, Laison also introduced fun facts about famous mathematicians, such as John Urschel, the former Baltimore Ravens center who’s now completing a PhD in mathematics at MIT, or former president of the Mathematical Association of America Francis Su, who says, “Mathematics is for human flourishing.” Students also loved hearing about the Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium Prize, which offers $1 million each for the solution of seven difficult mathematical problems.

Despite having never taught students that young before, Laison only modified his approach slightly by using less technical vocabulary. “I loved sharing cool ideas with the students,” he says. “I hope I encouraged them to think about studying math in college.”

While McCaffrey enjoyed helping both Willamette Academy and her students, she also appreciated what she gained from the summer camp. “The greater breadth of experience makes me a better teacher,” she says. “And the students are incredible. They’re so attentive and they really want to learn. It’s a real privilege to work with them.”

McCaffrey encourages other Willamette faculty members to volunteer with Willamette Academy. “I loved the little moments where I’d see the students so engaged,” she says. “I loved thinking that maybe something they learned from me would be the seed of a passion or develop into something meaningful later on.”

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