A group of Fife students, the largest yet, attended this year’s Shades of Purple conference July 19 and 20 at the University of Washington and came away with all kinds of tools and knowledge for how to go on to college – and developed a greater sense of themselves, too.
Designed specifically for underrepresented minority high school seniors interested in attending the UW, the conference gave participants the opportunity to meet future classmates, learn about campus programs and discover the diversity and unity that exists within the UW community. Meeting and hearing from enrolled UW students, Shades of Purple youth were free to ask questions about their academic interests and to explore their culture and racial identity in a welcoming group of their peers. For many of the students, they would be the first in their family to attend college so the prospect of higher education means even more to them – and their future.
Accompanied by Fife High School’s Academic Support Specialist Vanessa Lindgren and Fife Schools’ Indian Education Coordinator Martha Sherman, the students took tours of the campus and experienced first hand that they, too, could be part of that campus life.
“We doubled the number of kids that registered compared to last year,” Lindgren said. “Another neat thing about this year was that we really did have a variety of students – Korean, African-American, Native American, Latino/Hispanic… We also had some Samoan kids and last year we had no Polynesian kids with us and they are the most underrepresented on college campuses.”
Students from 22 area high schools attended Shades of Purple, and Lindgren said she is very proud of how much the Fife students engaged in discussions about cultural and minority identity and what it means to live in that culture. These topics were explored in a group setting in cultural identity workshops and later individually when the students worked on personal essays – part of the application for college admission and a chance for each student to really think about his or her personal story of overcoming obstacles to now be on the brink of attending college.
“It’s really a unique experience,” Lindgren said. “It’s rare to have underrepresented youth together who have that in common where they can share, be open and trust each other. It’s really freeing to be able to talk about things you may be uncomfortable thinking about.”
During the workshops the students were asked to talk about one of the first things they think of with their culture. Immediate answers concerned food, language and religion then they were asked to think more deeply.
“Our students were really vocal about the values of their culture – to show respect to elders and what family means,” Lindgren said.
Another powerful exercise focused on empowerment and disempowerment. Students could volunteer to share their stories of when they felt both of these things in their lives and again the Fife students shined bright.
“I was really proud of our students for sharing in such large groups,” Lindgren said, as the Fife students talked about perseverance and resiliency. “A lot of students that went, I didn’t know on a personal level and being able to be there I have a better idea of how I can support them and help them stay focused and being empowered,” Lindgren said from her point of view as an educator.
Getting help with the intricate university application process, which sometimes deters underrepresented from applying to colleges, was a godsend for the students, including Gonzalo Villacorta, one of the Fife seniors at Shades of Purple.
“There are many students, such as me, who don't really know the process of applying to college and not knowing what to expect and how to write your application,” he said. “This program is perfect for those people because this conference will help you on every step and make the application process not as complicated as you think it is.”
Villacorta, who plans to study business marketing, said he came away from the conference with a renewed vision of his place in the world of higher education.
“The biggest takeaway I got from the conference was that it is okay being different on the ethnicity you are no matter if you're African American, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander or white. All the hard work you put in at your education will eventually lead all of us to the same destination but each of us would have taken a different path to get to college and all the effort we put into that hard work would bring all of us together and create a unified university filled with diversity.”
Comments from other Fife students show that the conference had an impact on them that they will never forget.
“Overall, (Shades of Purple) gives you an advantage over many other students that plan on going to college just because of being you and the cultural background you have,” Villacorta said. “Many colleges look for diversity in their school and the type of impact you could bring into that University. I am not saying you will get accepted into college just because of the color of your skin and the cultural background you have, but also what is very important is that you keep your grades in check and keep pushing yourself to be noticed.”
Lindgren is already looking forward to next year’s Shades of Purple because she knows that students who attend will be impacted in the best of ways.
“Last year more than half of the students that attended were accepted into a university,” she said. “I feel very strongly that these kids will really increase their chances of getting into a university simply by participating in this two-day conference. We’re just really hoping that next year we continue to fund this. It’s really something that’s unique and especially for our kids that disproportionately don’t graduate or apply to college. This is an innovative way to give them an advantage.”