One approach to building a college-going culture revolves around validation theory, convincing kids that they belong.

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The future has finally arrived in the City of Destiny. Tacoma is thriving. Businesses both big and small are moving downtown. New construction projects bring with them the promise of future opportunities. The city’s thriving arts scene is attracting national attention. Tacoma’s education corridor has helped it became a hub of higher education in the South Sound.

But there’s more to do. In Pierce County, just 24 percent of adults hold a bachelor’s degree. Education has been central to Tacoma’s revitalization. Access is important, because education can transform a life, and individual growth leads to collective success.

Building a college-going culture

UW Tacoma’s Pathways to Promise program aims to bridge the gap between hearing about college and considering it for students in the South Sound. Pathways to Promise is UW Tacoma’s expanding network of partnerships aimed at creating college readiness and a college-going culture among the region’s teens, developed as part of the university’s urban-serving mission.

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The common philosophy in higher education is to focus on high school juniors and seniors and encourage them to attend college.  DJ Crisostomo and the rest of the staff in UW Tacoma’s Student Transition Programs have a holistic approach that begins in middle school and doesn’t end until well after someone graduates from the University. “If you want to get kids into college then you have to start sooner than their last few years of high school,” Crisostomo says.

Thousands of middle school students come to UW Tacoma every year to explore the campus and to learn more about college life. “We believe in creating customized experiences,” says Crisostomo. The visits often include short sample lessons created in partnership with faculty and led by current UW Tacoma students. “Junior high kids don’t want to listen to me, they want to listen to college students,” he says.

UW Tacoma’s approach to building a college-going culture revolves in part around validation theory. “Basically, we let students know they belong here,” says Crisostomo. “It comes down to something as simple as telling them ‘you’re on a college campus today, if you can make it here today who’s to say you can’t make it back, what’s to say you can’t do this at another campus?’ ”

Wes Carter, a Tacoma native, wanted to do something that would allow him to give back to the city and its people. (Ryan Moriarty)
Wes Carter, a Tacoma native, wanted to do something that would allow him to give back to the city and its people. (Ryan Moriarty)

Theory into practice

When Wes Carter was in sixth grade at Stewart Middle School in Tacoma in the early 1990s, he’d already started thinking about joining a gang. A speaker came to the school and gave a presentation about his life in a gang.

“This guy talked about being shot,” says Carter. “He looked really tough and after he told us that he started to cry.”

The experience resonated with Carter. Years later, he couldn’t recall the context of the visit or who organized it but he remembered the message. “This guy wanted us to know that gangs aren’t cool,” says Carter. “At that time Tacoma had serious issues with gangs and I was tempted to join one.”

Carter never did get involved with a gang. After high school, he started his own commercial truck-washing business. He got married and had two kids — boys. Carter ran the company with his wife for 13 years before deciding to attend college at UW Tacoma.

Carter chose to major in marketing with the Milgard School of Business, a decision that led him to Joe Lawless and Dr. Jill Purdy. “I had Dr. Purdy for a class on managing organizations,” said Carter. “She brought Joe into class one day and talked about their board governance course and I thought it sounded really good.”

The course matches students with local nonprofits. Carter, a Tacoma native, wanted something that would allow him to give back to the city and its people. He was partnered with Safe Streets, an organization formed in 1989. Executive Director Priscilla Lisicich says the agency’s mission is to “empower community members to take charge of situations in their own neighborhoods so they can create a safer, cleaner and healthier environment.”

The first time Carter and Lisicich met, “we were talking and I brought up my experience at Stewart Middle School,” says Carter. “I shared this story with Priscilla and she said ‘you know what? That was a Safe Streets event.’ I was blown away, I had no idea.”

Carter graduated from UW Tacoma in 2015 and now works for Brown & Brown Insurance. He’s still very much involved with Safe Streets. He was asked to become a member of the board and was recently elected president.

Learn more about UW Tacoma.