The Academy of Civic Life — a new, free pre-college program at Stony Brook University for students from underserved and underrepresented backgrounds — hosted its first group of students this summer. From July 11 through July 29, 12 students from Brentwood High School lived on campus while taking a course on the history of democracy and civic engagement around the world.
“The experience overall has just been amazing, I really wish more kids could experience something like this,” said Romanov Bienaime, a rising senior who participated in the program. “Now I can say with confidence that I think I’m going to be doing just fine when I get to college. Everybody here has just made it so easy to just be yourself here and learn at the same time.”
The goal of the program is to empower the students to go to college and to become engaged members of their communities. The Academy of Civic Life (ACL) is funded through the Teagle Foundation, which has provided two grants through its Knowledge for Freedom Initiative. The ACL program was spearheaded by the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), stemming from its shared vision and Navigation to 2030, and is one of the initiatives created in the CAS Office of the Dean to expand access to higher education and increase inclusion, diversity, equity and access on campus.
“I feel like the future’s going to be great for all of us,” said Emmy Cordero, also a rising senior in the program. “I feel like this program is going to make us great citizens, and we are going to make a change because everybody here works so hard. Everybody here is very knowledgeable and smart.”
Amy Cook, a professor in the Department of English and associate dean for research and innovation in the College of Arts and Sciences, is the ACL program director and Abigail Nishimura, a PhD candidate in the Interdepartmental Doctoral Program in Anthropological Sciences, is the project manager.
“I was thrilled to be a part of this exciting project that gives high school students a glimpse into what the college experience is really like,” Cook said. “For many of the students in this program, the experience has addressed some of the misconceptions, even fears, about the college application process, living on campus, taking a course, for example. I’ve once again found myself awed by our next generation of students — their drive, conviction, and intelligence.”
The Academy of Civic Life gives high school students a real college experience, living on campus and attending a rigorous three-week seminar with Tracey Walters, a professor in the Department of Africana Studies. Through this seminar, “Democracy and Justice for All,” part of the BA in Globalization Studies curriculum, the students learned about the global history of democratic movements, politics, and labor through readings and in-class debate. They worked closely with undergraduate teaching assistants to practice the skills necessary for reading and writing at a college level, all while earning college credit. The program also offered the students an opportunity to attend workshops where they learned about choosing a college; writing a personal narrative; applying for financial aid; choosing a major; and other essential skills that will help them navigate the college application process.
“The ACL is truly a wonderful program, and I couldn’t be more impressed with the students who participated,” Walters said. “From the onset, I made it clear our classroom was a democratic space. This really enabled the students to speak freely and respectfully about the topics we discussed. We covered a lot of very challenging reading material, from Plato to Baldwin, and touched on some controversial topics: Roe vs. Wade, immigration, and CRT. No matter what I assigned, the students worked through the reading without complaint and attended each lesson prepared and eager to participate. We never had a dull moment, and I really loved the community we created. Of course, I have to acknowledge Amy and Abi and the rest of the team, including our amazing TAs, who all worked very hard to get the program running. I know we have impacted the lives of the students who participated.”
Now that the summer program is complete, students will take these classroom lessons and apply them in their communities. During their senior year, ACL participants will work to enact positive change in their neighborhoods through community organizing. Working with mentors from the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission, a county agency that works toward the elimination of bias and discrimination, the students will engage in a 10-month extracurricular program, designing and carrying out community engagement projects.
“The program has been really helpful,” commented Ariel Campos, another rising senior in the Academy of Civic Life. “It gave me a taste of what college is going to be like. It’s definitely given me more confidence with the college application process too. We’ve had amazing presentations done by guest speakers about the college admissions process. We’ve also had amazing TA’s, all of them guiding us.”
The ACL recently partnered with the AmeriCorps VISTA program. In the coming months, Stony Brook University will be recruiting a full-time VISTA member to continue building the ACL while also creating new programs that make college more accessible to students in Suffolk County. Based on the success of this year’s program, the ACL is looking forward to recruiting students from Brentwood High School for next year’s cohort. After next year, the ACL hopes to expand to other Long Island high schools for future summer programs.
To find out more about the ACL program, visit their website.