Project SOAR is a college access program focused on supporting the college and career goals of residents in public housing. Currently, the program is operating at five public housing sites in downtown, East LA and South LA. SOAR serves any resident regardless of age, education level, or citizenship status. In addition to working with students in 9-12th grade, SOAR provides one-on-one advising for returning adult learners, community college and transfers students, and residents interested in vocational training or certificate programs.
Since SoCal CAN was awarded the LA2050 grant in July 2020, Project SOAR has used a portion of the funds to create a special, paid position for SOAR students and parents. At the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, the SOAR team designed the SOAR Ambassador Program with the goal of hiring six students and six parents. These student and parent ambassadors would support Project SOAR through promotion, recruitment, and social media efforts at Nickerson Gardens, William Mead, Ramona Gardens, Gonzaque Village and Avalon Gardens. After a successful application and interview process in October 2020, Project SOAR welcomed twelve Ambassadors to the program and hosted two separate virtual Ambassador Orientations for both parent and student participants.
SOAR Education Program Specialists, Maria Perez, Marvin Ramirez, and Stephanie Guzman leading Ambassador Virtual Orientations, October 2020. Parents Ambassadors (top), Student Ambassadors (bottom).
Project SOAR Ambassadors provide critical insight into the climate and needs of the communities the program serves. They've helped staff identify new strategies and ideas for connecting with residents at each site. All six student ambassadors have been SOAR participants for multiple years. Five of them are currently attending local colleges that SOAR helped them apply to and enroll in. The student and parent ambassadors have also helped the SOAR team refine and adapt the program by providing meaningful feedback on their own experiences and sharing what additional resources or supports are needed to better serve future students and families. If you're interested in experiencing the Ambassadors in action, follow us on Instagram (@projectsoarla). During February 2021, the Ambassadors are “taking over" the IG posts and stories to share their personal experiences with college and Project SOAR.
SOAR Student Ambassadors: Brisa Bernal, Thuy Tran, and Jocelyn Benavides (left to right).
COVID-19 & Technology Support
As COVID-19 continued to provide increasingly insurmountable challenges to accessing technology for remote learning, Project SOAR worked steadfastly at identifying partnerships and opportunities to help SOAR students stay connected and enrolled in school. This past November, we were delighted to be identified as one of HACLA's community partners successfully serving residents on the ground and were able to work in collaboration with HACLA to provide refurbished laptops to students in need. Through a grant awarded to HACLA, Project SOAR was able to identify and distribute refurbished laptops to 100 SOAR students across our five main housing sites.
Many households reported sharing one laptop between multiple members in the household, significantly reducing each student's ability to access courses and complete school-related tasks. The laptop distribution was a highlight of the fall semester, bringing a moment of relief and encouragement to a hundred students and families facing an unimaginably difficult year.
A stack of refurbished laptops ready for distribution at Nickerson Gardens computer lab.
In addition to remote learning challenges, many SOAR families faced cuts in employment and income due to COVID-19. While SOAR offers resume support and assistance with applying to vocational and technical programs for all residents, many certificate or training programs have additional tool/supply costs not covered by financial aid. Thankfully, through a partnership with the SOLA I CAN Foundation, Project SOAR was able to provide an amazing $5,000 scholarship opportunity to residents impacted by Covid-19 and in search of educational opportunities to advance their career and employment options.
Below: SOAR/SOLA I CAN Scholarship program flyer made possible by a generous donation from Oprah Winfrey.
Both parent and student ambassadors assisted the SOAR team in promoting the scholarship and referring residents to the scholarship who they knew had lost work due to Covid-19. Through the partnership with SOLA I CAN, SOAR was able to secure 10 scholarship spots specifically reserved for SOAR participants. In addition to financial award, the scholarship also provides intensive case-management support to and through the program, career coaching, and employment assistance. Applications are still being reviewed, but we look forward to hearing which SOAR participants receive the award and celebrating their success.
Challenges and Lessons
As Project SOAR continues to have decreased access to residents and in-person programming, we are faced with increased challenges in recruitment and outreach.
While the SOAR team has been able to continue to support the students and families already connected with SOAR, we are deeply concerned about the number of residents who are in need of support, but whom we are unable to reach through the usual community events, meetings, and social gatherings no longer happening on site.
One thing we have learned from the past six months is the value of adaptability, especially when it comes to the programs and services SOAR provides. As a college access program, we remain committed to increasing the number of residents attending and graduating college, but we also realize the numerous additional factors that impact any person's ability to focus on educational goals and attainment. In the past months, we have only just begun to adapt our programs and services to meet the immediate and basic needs of students and families and will continue to seek out strong partnerships with organizations who can help provide holistic support to our residents.