From the Office of the Provost
Episode 3: Building Equitable Pathways to College with the Educational Outreach Center
Joe McCarthy: Hello, and welcome to “From the Office of the Provost,” a podcast that highlights the program's strategies and initiatives coming out of our office. I'm your new host, Interim Provost Joe McCarthy. As our former provost Ann Cudd settles into her presidency at Portland State University, I've stepped into the role of interim provost and podcast host.
To share some background: In 2017, I was appointed as Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies. However, I've been at the University for 25 years, serving as a faculty member in the Swanson School of Engineering since 1998, where I hold the W.K. Whiteford Professor of Chemical Engineering title.
Today, I'm very pleased to be joined by Daren Ellerbee, the inaugural director of the Educational Outreach Center. Darren joined our office in January of 2022. She previously led the Community Engagement Center in Homewood as a member of the Office of Engagement and Community Affairs team. Now she leads a growing team within our office dedicated to building more equitable pathways to college. Welcome, Daren.
Daren Ellerbee: Thanks, Joe. It's good to be here.
McCarthy: Daren, I'd like to start with you sharing some background on the Educational Outreach Center and its mission.
Ellerbee: So, within a few months of my hire, I launched a very intensive strategic planning process, ensuring that a community of voices provided their input and expertise. The planning process, the strategic planning process included the creation of the EOC's mission, which is to serve as the epicenter for all University of Pittsburgh academic outreach efforts. The center also maintains the infrastructure that operationalizes collaborations and leverages the assets of Pitt and external communities to enhance college admissions from matriculation through graduation for underserved and historically underrepresented students.
In 2023, I started to hire staff and implement the strategic plan. And this summer, we had the pleasure of relaunching our very first program called Investing Now. And I'm working with staff and colleagues within the Office of the Provost to not only relaunch our other pre-college programs, but to identify resources, resources which will accelerate the impact of Pitt faculty, staff, and students working within the K-12 space.
McCarthy: Thank you, Daren. As you know, a focus within our office is ensuring access and affordability of a college education in general, and education at the University of Pittsburgh in particular. Could you dig in a little bit deeper into the current programs that the Educational Outreach Center supports?
Ellerbee: Yes, so we have three programs right now: the Pittsburgh Public Scholars Program, which is a partnership with Pittsburgh Public Schools; the Pittsburgh Admissions Collaboration, which is also a partnership with Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC); as well as Investing Now. Those are inherited programs, but we do have the opportunity to enhance and expand those, which is very exciting.
McCarthy: I agree. On top of expanding those existing programs, the EOC, of course, has been hard at work on developing new programs, as you alluded to. Can you share some of the new opportunities?
Ellerbee: Yes, so we have a program called the Pitt Horizon Scholars. This is a partnership with the School of Social Work to support youth who have been or who are currently in foster care, and they're interested in attending college. The money to support this program comes from [Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency’s] Fostering Independence Program. So, we're very excited that the EOC will be conducting extensive outreach to make sure that foster youth are aware of this program and the opportunities at Pitt.
In addition, something new that I'm extremely excited about is the Pittsburgh Promise Pathway to Pitt-Greensburg, Pittsburgh Promise-eligible students who are interested in attending Pitt-Greensburg will receive a $2,000 housing stipend on top of their additional financial aid. I recently had the opportunity to visit Greensburg — it's a beautiful campus. So, we're very excited again to promote this program among Pittsburgh Public Schools students.
McCarthy: That's wonderful. And it's great to hear about these new programs that support our local K through 12 students. I know we've had a lot of success with our prior programs, and I'd like to hear a little bit more about that, if you would. Can we talk about the Pittsburgh Public Scholars program and some of the successes there?
Ellerbee: So, the Pittsburgh Public Scholars Program, I mentioned, is a partnership with Pittsburgh Public Schools. It guarantees admission to the University of Pittsburgh for every valedictorian and salutatorian. So, this particular, with this particular program, we, though we want every Val-Sal from Pittsburgh Public Schools to come to Pitt, every year, we have a good group of students who decided to take the Pitt pathway.
This year, the incoming 2023 class, we have eight students who decided to come to Pitt. And we're very excited about the opportunity that early contact with students in the school will produce even more Pittsburgh Public Scholars at the University of Pittsburgh. We anticipate an increase in that number in 2024, for that very reason.
McCarthy: Great. Can you talk a little bit about, I actually met with you for breakfast before, something you call the Breakfast of Champions. Can you outline what that is for?
Ellerbee: Yes, so the Breakfast of Champions is an event that we sponsor with Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Office of Admission and Financial Aid to celebrate the excellence of all valedictorians and salutatorians. Whether they decide to come to Pitt or not, we just want to applaud their academic achievement. Thinking way back to when I graduated from high school, it was a big deal, right? To make it to that point. Though, those of us in higher ed understand that that's just one step in the education, lifelong learning journey. So, to me, the Breakfast of Champions is almost like a rite of passage ceremony for Pittsburgh Public Schools high school students to know that there are folks at the University of Pittsburgh who've been cheering for them, rooting for them, and hoping for their success. And this past June, we had the pleasure of welcoming around 80 valedictorians and salutatorians at an event that we held that the [University Club]. It was wonderful.
McCarthy: Yeah, I agree. That was a lot of fun. It's really excellent to see those brilliant minds coming out of the Pittsburgh Public Schools. As an engineer myself, as you know, I take particular interest in the Investing Now program that's been a long-standing program out of the Swanson School of Engineering. But now that's recently moved to the Educational Outreach Center. How did it make its way into your hands and what's changed?
Ellerbee: Well, you put it in my hands, Joe. But, but you know, first and foremost, the Swanson School of Engineering had that program since 1988. Needless to say, it's a long-standing, well-respected program with a large number of alumni throughout the country, to be honest with you. So, with that in mind, I hear from those alumni almost every day, just expressing their joy at the fact that Investing Now is back, and that we were able to relaunch the program over the summer.
Now, the way that we've retooled the program, or revamped it, included changing the focus from STEM to STEAM. So, adding in art, recognizing that when it comes to socio-economic and racial disparities in science, technology, engineering, and math, we're also seeing those disparities in the humanities. And we just want to make sure that we're promoting art and ensuring that the youth that we have contact with have quality art experiences with layers of benefit.
So for instance, I want to say it was just over the summer, we partnered with our library system (ULS), who has the August Wilson Archives, and we were able to work with them to create a program for Investing Now youth to participate over the summer. It was well received to the point where we're going to continue the learning in the fall with a workshop with ULS. And we are talking to representatives from the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, so that we can do a field trip not only with the youth from Investing Now, but with their families to tour the exhibit that they have for August Wilson at the August Wilson Center.
So, we're continuing to build and I am very excited about the partnership with the University Art Gallery. The conversations indicate a willingness to work directly with Investing Now youth and all of the youth connected to the EOC. They have some really cool, culturally relevant exhibits coming in the fall and the spring that we're hoping that we could build a curriculum around in partnership with the art gallery.
McCarthy: Yeah, those sounds like wonderful additions. I'm excited to see those students come to and through Pitt and other higher ed institutions.
McCarthy: The work you and your team are doing goes hand in hand, of course, with the University's vision of access to a Pitt education. I wonder, how can we build better collaborations across the community to bring these students to our campus?
Ellerbee: I think there's a few ways. The first thing that I want to do when it comes to engaging community audiences is just building quality relationships, learning about the assets that are already in community that we can build off of. I'd like to think that we don't have to reinvent the wheel, we just have to work better with our community partners. So, identifying those partners within the K-12 space, not only external to Pitt, but across the institution, is very important.
Now, in, specifically in thinking about our program, so the Pittsburgh Admissions Collaboration, for instance, it's a partnership with CCAC and we're revamping that program now. But really, the revamping includes talking, just having conversations, establishing roles and resources and aligning those. And to me, my theory of change is just being better partners, working closer together, and identifying a path forward. We don't necessarily have to hit the long-term goal, which is we want to see more students, underrepresented students, graduating from college. But to me, it's what is the, answering the question around what is the low hanging fruit that we can pick right now, that will at least plant those seeds that will get the students to the finish line?
One of the things that we operate on is a premise of exposure. We want to make sure that our students are exposed to college life in a way that will demystify college for them. So, this summer, we actually hosted a group from Aliquippa called Aliquippa Impact. They brought 15 youth to campus. We partner with the Black Action Society (BAS) to conduct the tour. With that, the BAS members were able to cultivate an experience that I feel like was very unique.
Of course, we toured the Student Success Hub in Langley and we hopped around to a few different places on campus. We ended at The Eatery. Food is very important to young people, and the feedback that I received from that day indicated that, of course their favorite part of the tour was The Eatery because they got to break bread next to college students and they really get a chance to feel what it was like to be in that environment.
So, we're considering how can we leverage our resources to demystify college in a fun way and to plant those seeds early to let students know that, hey, you can you could if you look around, you could be sitting here in just a few years if you really want to, and let us help you get there.
McCarthy: Yeah, I really love those efforts to normalize the college experience for students that might not have that in their background.
Ellerbee: Especially for first gen students or students who are familiar with Oakland because of, you know, that's where they go to the hospital, right? Or that's where they go to the restaurants on Forbes Avenue. But what's in that big building that looks like an ivory tower, right? I want to, I want them to be able to answer that question. Like, I know what's in there. I've been in there. But it's not just one experience. It's not just one tour. It's layering experiences on top of one another until they get to a place of, of normalcy.
McCarthy: In addition to supporting local high school students and their pursuit of higher education, another goal that that we challenged you with when we established the center was to address race and socio-economic disparities in STEM and humanities, but in partnership with other folks across the University community. Can you speak a little bit about how your role impacts those efforts?
Ellerbee: Yes, working alongside of efforts throughout the University to make sure that we're addressing racial and socio-economic disparities is very important. And I think I alluded to the role of the EOC and doing that among our student populations, but there's work that needs to be done to support faculty, staff and students interested in engaging in K-12 spaces.
The EOC is cultivating, culturally sustaining, practices and workshops geared towards faculty, staff and students who may be new to Pittsburgh, that may be new to the area. And they're interested in learning more about the culture of the community, family dynamics, etcetera. I feel like there's a place for the EOC to help further not only those discussions, but also expose faculty, staff, and students to culturally sustaining pedagogy and practices that they can leverage when engaging with pre-college scholars, particularly those from underrepresented groups.
So, there's a way that me and my staff, we counsel people and instruct faculty, and we exhibited this over the summer, but we consult faculty in real time. But what would that look like if we cultivated workshops aimed at making sure that the programs that they painstakingly created with their students in the classroom — and that's faculty, right — that those programs are impactful when presented to young scholars?
McCarthy: Very good, thanks. Looking ahead, what opportunities do you see for the center?
Ellerbee: Well, I do see an opportunity to expand our reach. I'm still hiring and hiring and building capacity. But, to me a goal is to make sure that all of our programs are up and running with adequate capacity and resource, maximizing the resources we have so that we are impacting as many youth as possible.
The other goal is, and I spoke about this in my last response, but my other goal is to make sure that the EOC is supporting practice among faculty, staff, and students, because when it comes to those hands-on experiences, those collegiate exposures that demand excellence, it's really the faculty that we’re leaning upon their expertise, their knowledge. So, another goal of mine is to make sure that we have adequate resources for faculty to grow in their practice and impact.
And lastly, I will continue to establish new partnerships and collaborations. Every week, we're hearing from more and more community partners who've just learned about the EOC and they're interested in partnering with us, as well as institutional partners who have seen the social media posts around Investing Now and they want to know, how can we be involved? And to me, the fact that we relaunched Investing Now is a great opportunity to open up conversations around how can the Educational Outreach Center as a whole work with that particular institutional or community partner.
So, to be honest with you, Joe, ever since we've had that two-week summer experience, the EOC has been hopping. And we anticipate that we're going to continue to hop and continue to hit the ground running from here on out.
McCarthy: So, you mentioned people finding you on social. Can you give a little bit more information on how people can learn more or tap into the existing network?
Ellerbee: Yes, so we are currently on Facebook, which is primarily engaging parents and grandparents at this point because young folks are not on Facebook, but we're on Facebook. We're also on Instagram. We have our website eoc.pitt.edu. I think that's the best place for up-to-date information about our programs, open applications. And lastly, we have a K-12 hub that folks can access through the EOC's website. This hub is pretty much the online home for K-12 programs throughout the University. But we're building the K-12 hub out right now, so please visit eoc.pitt.edu and check it out.
McCarthy: Well thank you, Darren, this has been great. I appreciate you joining me and sharing the great work that you and your team are doing. And thank you listeners for tuning in. I'm Interim Provost Joe McCarthy and this has been “From the Office of the Provost.”