University program preps first-generation college students

Sousada Chidthachack grew up as part of an immigrant family and went to college to live out her mother’s dream of having her own career.

Chidthachack’s mother ran away from her childhood home in Laos, crossing Thailand and finally arriving in the United States so her future children could have more opportunities.

“I’m reminded every day that it’s a struggle,” Chidthachack said. “I saw my parents struggle.”

She’s pursuing a Ph.D. in math at the University of Minnesota with the dual goal of achieving a family dream and inspiring students with backgrounds like hers.

One way of doing this is through a new math tutoring program at the University.

The Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation gave the University STEM Education Center $300,000 to start the Prepare2Nspire program, which will provide tutoring and mentoring for underrepresented middle and high school students, said Lesa Clarkson, an associate
professor in the University’s Curriculum and Instruction department.

The program will train University undergraduates to tutor and mentor eleventh graders this fall to prepare them for college math, said Clarkson, the program’s principal investigator.

Those eleventh-graders will then tutor and mentor eighth grade students in algebra.

Prepare2Nspire will work with students from North Community, Thomas Edison, Patrick Henry, Heritage Academy of Science & Technology and MetroTech Career Academy high schools, Chidthachack said.

Applications for undergraduate tutors and mentors are still open. Positions will be decided in July, and training will begin in August, said University graduate student and project manager Forster Ntow.

The project is funded by a one-year grant. If the program is successful, Clarkson said, she hopes to get the funding to continue it.

She said the program will target Minneapolis students who are potential first-generation college students, ethnic minorities and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

“Just because a student is from a poor family doesn’t mean they can’t be successful,” said Chidthachack, the program’s recruitment and retention operator.

One reason the program started, Clarkson said, was to make sure underrepresented students don’t fall behind with the state’s math regulations, which have required eighth graders to complete Algebra I since 2007.

The funding will be enough to tutor and mentor 135 eighth- and eleventh-grade students during the coming academic year.

“If we can prepare students better in math in high school,” Clarkson said, “then students have the opportunity to be more successful.”

Clarkson said getting students interested in math is important because it’s becoming a necessary skill in many careers.

“Math is just not optional anymore,” she said. “It’s so easy to give up when you don’t have the support when you’re trying to learn math.”

Chidthachack said she, Clarkson and the other program leaders will collect qualitative and quantitative data on student progress throughout the year.

In addition to participating in the project, Chidthachack is working on writing a book about her life story as another way to reach out to underrepresented students. She said she hopes the program, as well as her own personal story, will inspire young students to pursue higher education in math-related fields.

“That’s why this mentoring is so huge,” she said. “It’s so much more than just a math program.”