When Mohamed Borbor was growing up in South Seattle, he didn’t know there was a such a thing as low-income, because everyone around him was, and that was normal.
Borbor is a University of Washington student in electrical engineering — an achievement he attributes to a strong work ethic, a network of programs focused on students, and advisors that helped him grow as a person, not just as a student.
“I do better when people are open-minded, engaging and not all about school,” Borbor said. “When teachers get to know the student, that builds trust.”
The complex approach to addressing both social and emotional barriers to academic success was the topic of a recent panel organized by the Road Map Project this week.
The Road Map Project is a community-driven initiative that helps families navigate the school system to find the opportunities and resources to support their child’s education. The group is helping 127,000 students across seven school districts in South King County, where more than half these students live in poverty.
Over the past few years, education leaders are recognizing that solely focusing on course material will not give youth what they need to succeed. Local youth development organizations are emphasizing that teaching positive social-emotional skills while factoring in the cultural context of each school and neighborhood will help students feel more connected and therefore, do better both in school and in life.
Educators must also address systemic traumas and barriers, said Nicole Yolahem, who is the opportunity youth initiatives director for the Road Map Project’s parent organization, the Community Center for Education Results.
“Experiencing racism is a trauma many students in our area face,” Yolahem said
, “We have to dismantle the systems that hold these issues in place. You can’t solve them in a therapy session.”
The panel on Friday included Shawn Ginwright, a professor and leading national expert on youth development, activism, and engagement.
Ginwright suggested shifting the focus away from the students’ trauma and toward “healing.” He told the attendees that “trauma-informed” care focuses on coping with immediate needs and “reacting to symptoms” instead of focusing on creating a supportive environment and considering how the symptoms emerged.
“We tend to focus on remedial change. We focus more on reducing misery than increasing joy,” Ginwright said, labeling the latter as healing-centered engagement. “We don’t want our children to live in a neighborhood with less bullying. We want our children to live in a neighborhood with joy.”
While Mohamed Borbor, the UW electrical engineering student, gives a lot of credit to ACE Mentor Program and College Access Now for his success, he said programs can only do so much. A lot of his peers saw such programs as a space to hang out or “kick back” rather than a step toward upward social mobility.
Borbor said he never had the intention of going to college and neither did his friends, because it seemed like an idea rather than a reality.
Borbor’s parents stayed behind in Ethiopia when he immigrated to the United States with his sister and her husband, because his family didn’t know if he would get another chance to go.
Winter nights were the worst, he recalls, as he would spend more time clutching his blanket instead of sleeping because his sister, a janitor, couldn’t afford heat that month.
For students like him, necessity and education constantly battle for attention, and the winner is different for everyone.
But because of his hard work, scholarships pay most of his tuition and he is grateful he doesn’t have to split his time among studying, working and commuting.
However, when he met with advisors to talk about applying to the electrical engineering program, he said he felt patronized and he wanted to prove them wrong.
“People’s first impressions of me, I could feel them thinking ‘Yeah, he’s just another Black guy who’s gonna fail. He probably deals drugs and has a messed up criminal record,’ which by the way, I don’t. It’s clean,” Borbor said.
He knew he had to work twice as hard as the students with whom he competed as they had twice the support from their parents and twice the resources.
“I came in with no credits. I started with with the lowest math class here,” Borbor said. “If I had started in their shoes, I would be a lot smarter. I would be in grad school by now with my work ethic.”
The quarter Borbor applied to the electrical engineering major, roughly 800 students applied, about 200 made it into the second round, in the end 50 people were accepted. He says at the orientation meeting for the new students, he looked around and he was the only Black person there.
Borbor said the system needs change. Many of his peers’ parents don’t know the “system,” he said, and programs and teachers mainly focus on a student’s problems and not the whole person.
“The problem is not with the students,” Borbor said. “It’s how they grow up. Change starts with the parents, and I don’t mean by parental teaching.”