40 Years of Succeeding Against the Odds

L to R: Meg Chopurian, SLC social science tutor; Alex De Guia, assistant director; Paul Smith, former staff member; Rex De Guia, social science program coordinator; Carolyn Swalina, writing program co-coordinator; Liz Keithley, assistant director. Photos by Rex De Guia and Alberto Lesdesma.

Gonzalo Arrizón, study strategies coordinator. Alberto Lesdesma photo.

By Cathy Cockrell, UC Berkeley News Typecast in high school as bad at numbers, Maria Martinez is now earning her doctorate in mathematics at Berkeley. Convinced he “didn’t belong” at UC’s flagship campus, when he landed as an undocumented freshman from South Central L.A., Joel Portillo graduated a University Medal finalist and is now earning a pair of master’s degrees at Stanford. Raised in rural California, Kyle Livie became (with his twin brother) the first in his family to graduate from college, and went on to earn a doctorate in history and become a professional educator. Testimonies about lives forever changed, often against steep odds, flowed freely at last Saturday’s gala celebrating the Student Learning Center’s 40 years on the UC Berkeley campus. Part anniversary, part reunion, part fundraising-campaign launch, the event brought nearly 150 current and former SLC tutors, tutees, professional staff and supporters together for a reception, dinner and dance at Memorial Stadium. “Family,” “lifeline” and “transforming” were descriptors used repeatedly over the course of the evening. “Thank god the center had my back,” one young scholar was overheard saying. The SLC was the “place I would always go for safety and confidence,” Portillo said of his undergraduate years. The learning center, located in César Chavez Student Center, offers academic support to 8,500 undergrads a year (80,000 in all since its launch in 1973) and plays a key role in Berkeley’s retention and graduation rates, which are the highest in the UC system and third among public institutions nationwide. Calling it “a crucial part of our undergrad teaching enterprise,” Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer praised the SLC’s effectiveness in responding to “the changing character of our student body” since the early ’70s, when it was largely U.S.-born, middle-class and male. Today, he noted, well over half of each freshman class has at least one parent whose first language is not English. Increasing numbers of out-of-state students, international students and those with learning differences are negotiating the academic and cultural terrain. “As Berkeley students have become increasingly diverse, we have become a national model for how you adjust your pedagogy to that diversity,” said Breslauer. The SLC has pioneered and honed a peer-centered, process-oriented learning model, helping undergrads transition to Berkeley, reflect on their own learning process, and receive academic support in math, writing, study strategies and other foundational skills. Fellow undergrads, hired by the center and trained by SLC professional staff, provide the tutoring; group work is encouraged. “Although you’re getting high-quality academic support, you’re not being graded,” Alberto Ledesma, who came to the center as an undergrad in the early ’80s. He earned a Berkeley B.A., M.A. and Ph.D.; Cal State faculty appointment; and now is SLC writing coordinator. Without the center, “it’s likely that many students would have had a very different experience with this institution, and maybe would have left,” said SLC Director Cara Stanley. The center’s pedagogical contributions extend, as well, to its undergrad tutors – more than 5,000 since its launch – some of whom were in attendance. Fourth-year political science major Meghry Chopurian recalled being recruited to assist fellow undergrads in an intimidating subject: empirical analysis and quantitative methods. At the time she was excited to share her expertise, she said over dinner, but was not prepared “for the vast amount of experience I would acquire” via weekly seminars for SLC tutors. “They professionalize how to be a tutor,” she observed. .
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