Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Wolverine Express reaches out to underserved Michigan high schools

As a student at Saginaw High School in the mid-1960s, Philip Bowman was an exceptional athlete who excelled in basketball, football, and track and field — but academically he grossly underachieved.

His goal was to earn an athletic scholarship and become the first person in his working-class family to attend college. Bowman recently shared his story with students at Saginaw High School as part of the Wolverine Express program, a new initiative through the Center for Educational Outreach (CEO) that takes a college-visit experience to students without the resources to visit college themselves.


Upcoming visits

• Today in Jackson
• Feb. 17 in Pontiac
• Feb. 24 in Benton Harbor
• April 13 in Muskegon
• April 21 in Grand Rapids
• Visits to Battle Creek and Kalamazoo soon will be planned.

Click here for more information and a video about Wolverine Express.

"In the mid-60s, there was much more support for an African American male who was an exceptional athlete than for one who had exceptional academic potential but was under-achieving," says Bowman, now director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity and a professor with the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at U-M.

"Hopefully, the Center for Educational Outreach and other innovative higher education pipeline interventions can help to reverse this historical bias in the opportunity structure, especially in low income, urban communities such as Saginaw."

Saginaw High School college adviser Ryan McBride says Bowman seemed to connect with the students as he told his story.

"It was great to hear him speak about his experiences in higher education," says McBride, who serves as a college adviser with seven other recent U-M grads through the Michigan College Advising Corps (MCAC) College Advisers, organized by CEO. "I believe his example, more than any other, showed every SHS student who heard him that they could also graduate from college and lead a successful life."

In its inaugural year, Wolverine Express planned eight site visits to underserved schools across the state. With each visit the Wolverine Express volunteers execute a program that helps underserved students see that, despite the obstacles facing them on the path to a college education, there are people with a vested interest in supporting them and guiding them to success.

Coming in to these schools, the Wolverine Express staff and volunteers work in partnership with the school-based college advisers to connect students with information and resources about academic success and college access. They take input from principals and teachers to outline the needs of each group and provide a presentation tailored to meet them.

At Saginaw High School, McBride has helped implement a program that outlines college preparation steps students need to complete, provides a checklist of these steps and rewards students for completing them. Partnering with U-M provided McBride with a real-life example of a school that students could work towards applying to.

"Many of our students at Saginaw High are from low-income backgrounds, will be first-generation college students, and are also very underserved," McBride says. "I was inspired to bring Wolverine Express to our school because I knew it would show our students that, with hard work and perseverance, a college education is very attainable for them."

At this first site visit, Patricia Coleman-Burns, assistant professor of nursing, encountered uncertainty from a pair of female students who were teen mothers, and felt that college might not be attainable while caring for their children. But Coleman-Burns was able to encourage these girls by pointing to the real-life example of a student she knew who gave birth while at U-M but still managed to graduate on time with a 3.5 grade-point average and now is working as a nurse.

Overall the staff made sure to validate that completing a college education won't be easy with the various obstacles the students will face, but pointed to real-life examples of those who had overcome these obstacles before them, and gave information on the resources and support available to help them succeed.

Following the visit to Saginaw High School, Wolverine Express volunteers and staff received positive feedback from students and staff alike. McBride says students have expressed appreciation and excitement following the visit, and that some students expressed inspiration to consider career options that they hadn't before the visit.

"They don't get the chance to get out to a college campus, and they totally understood the value of our coming to them," says Crisca Bierwert, program volunteer and chair of the University Diversity Council. "I think they also appreciated the openness of the discussions we had. Our goal was not to move them in any particular direction — except toward more education and a brighter future."

Overall, the staff and volunteers of the Wolverine Express were inspired by their first site visit and are eager to reach out to more students.

"U-M and others concerned about the education of all youth need to reach even deeper into middle school and even elementary school. Long before the belief and fear or inadequacies has set in, and in order to establish a strong pre-college foundation to level the playing field on which they will have to compete," Coleman- Burns says.

Bowman says he would like to see Wolverine Express adopted as a national model. He also says he's grateful for the opportunity to be part of the outreach project.

"Wolverine Express provides an opportunity to better translate some of my own research on social psychological factors that impede and promote college success among students from diverse backgrounds," he says. "Similar to others in the Wolverine Express delegation, I have a very strong personal commitment to innovative activities to expand college access, opportunity and success for talented students from diverse backgrounds."

— Jillian Bogater contributed to this report.