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Uncommon Journeys

The Environmental Leadership Pathway

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Sporting jeans and a sweatshirt, a backpack, and stylishly cropped hair, Rathana Yim looks like a typical California college kid. But his trajectory from high school to UC Berkeley was far from ordinary.

Yim’s casual appearance belies his 25 years and a lifelong series of challenges that might derail even the most driven students from reaching their goals. The tenth of eleven children of Cambodian “boat people,” refugees from the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, Yim is the first in his family to go to college. He has child-care responsibilities for his extended family, works to support himself and his nephew, and has been rocked by persistent family struggles with debt, illness, and frequent moves.

Yim is no excuse-maker—he worked and stayed in college, first San Francisco State and then San Francisco City College. But without role models or support, he had no roadmap to guide him from community college to the medical career he envisioned.

Enter Chris Lever, director of CNR’s Environmental Leadership Pathway program and a CNR alumnus himself, with a Ph.D. in environmental science, policy, and management. The Pathway program, supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and CNR’s Don Dahlsten Outreach Fund, targets students from underserved and low-income populations who demonstrate a strong interest in science. Through classes, research, mentorship, and financial support, Pathway provides an annual cohort of 25 qualifying students with an entrée into a four-year college, a critical first step in helping them reach their goals.

Lever visits classes and posts flyers at community colleges throughout the Bay Area. He uses email lists from science classes and whatever other outreach vehicles he can come up with to find the right kids.

Reaching Out

Yim saw a flyer at City College for a UC Berkeley internship with a grant, and the money got his attention.

“Normally during the summer I worked retail and did landscaping to save up money for school. I didn’t have time to enrich my brain,” said Yim, now a junior and a toxicology major in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology (NST). He showed up for the meeting, and talked to Lever about his family situation and middling grades. He applied and got accepted.

Lever has as many stories as Pathway has students.

Rathana Yim
From:San Francisco City College
To: nutritional sciences and Toxicology

“Attending Berkeley has made me look at things with a more research-oriented perspective. I’ve always had questions in class, like ‘Why do we do this?’ and ‘Why do we do that?’ At Berkeley they say ‘Go try and find the answer.’”

“Our students have very complicated lives,” said Lever. “They have the will and the intelligence to succeed, but the money they earn usually goes to family expenses before it goes to college expenses, and they often lack the experience, self-image, or confidence that allows them to see themselves as Berkeley students,” he said.

Sometimes Pathways simply provides social or cultural reference points. Yvette Gault, a 2009 fellow, saw a flyer at Skyline College in San Bruno.

“I didn’t have anyone in my family who went to college, so I thought the scope of degrees was more limited, like lawyer, architect, doctor…” Gault said.

After her mother died, she and her four siblings spent stints of several months at a time with family on reservations—the Ute Nation in Utah and the Navaho Nation in Arizona—while their father got back on his feet financially. “When I saw that this program was focused on environmental studies, it just really resonated with me,” saying that her Native American background gave her a strong connection to the environment. She’s now a junior at CNR, majoring in ecology and the environment.

Refocusing the Program

The program kicks off with a weekend orientation at the Marin Headlands, where the group bonds as a cohort, and where, often for the first time, students find others with comparable life experiences and aspirations.

They proceed through a spring class, a summer research internship that culminates in presenting their work in a symposium, and finally, a teaching-and-learning experience during which they create a science lesson and present it to local public school students.

Lever and Lynn Huntsinger, a professor of environmental policy, science, and management and Pathway’s Principal Investigator, inherited the program from the original PI, professor emerita Sally Fairfax, when it was still very young, and they saw potential to do even more with it. They have succeeded in doubling the applications every year for the past three years, generating enormous faculty support for internship and mentorship roles, and guiding a whopping 84 percent of the program’s graduates on to four-year colleges—nearly half of those students to CNR.

How did they build this enormous success? “We listened,” said Huntsinger. “It wasn’t enough to create a program targeting these kids; to make it a success we had to tailor every aspect of the program to the realities of their lives.”

Dollars and Cents

Money was key. Huntsinger alluded to an NSF research report from 2006 showing that successful internships that seek diverse student populations include stipends, and that students who do sponsored research pursue science careers more often.

“One of the key factors that prevents underserved students from succeeding on their own is money. I had a student who was going to be sent to Mexico to babysit for family. So she used her stipend to pay for a nanny.” Huntsinger doesn’t undersell the difficulties that more mainstream middle- and working-class students face with rising tuition, but she says that the Pathway students are different.

“Their challenges are multi-layered—often generations deep,” she said.

Students earn roughly $360 a month during the school year, and $2,000 over the summer, plus a small travel stipend.

Asma Mohammadi
From: Diable Valley College
To: nutritional sciences and Toxicology

“I was scared coming to a Berkeley lab from a J.C. But the professor was so supportive, I didn’t feel out of place. Because it was summer a lot of people were gone, it was just me and the professor and two postdocs. I just learned so much from them. They’d say, ‘Come on, do this procedure with me.’”

For senior Asma Mohammadi, a 2007-2008 fellow and a physiology and metabolism major in NST, the money was critical. “I live at home to save money, and I help my parents pay the rent,” said Mohammadi, who moved to the U.S. when she was in eighth grade, and was focusing on science at Diablo Valley College when she heard about Pathway through an email.

Unlike some other Pathway fellows, Mohammadi’s parents are college educated. They instilled all three of their kids with a love of science and learning.

But before she was born, her parents moved from their home in Afghanistan to New Dehli, India, to escape the then-Soviet war. After years of unemployment, their refugee status allowed them to move to the U.S., where her mother had relatives. They felt lucky, and yet the family never recovered financially from their ordeal.

“I was thinking that I just needed some sort of program to get me on track, and then one day I got this email, and that was it,” she said.

Knowing your Audience

Huntsinger and Lever made a major structural change by moving the program from an academic year to a calendar year. This allows them to recruit during the fall semester and have the fellowship culminate in December, just as the students apply to colleges.

They promoted the program to schools within the BART corridor, eliminating transportation problems as an issue.

And they made accommodations. For Mohammadi, this kind of flexibility was critical.

“I couldn’t do my research internship the summer I was in the program, so they let me come back and do it the next summer. That was amazing. I never would have been able to finish it otherwise,” she said.

Connecting with Mentors

Research is a peak experience for many of the students. Coming from community colleges, most of them had never had exposure to labs, and, despite their science bent, they thought of research as something extremely remote.

“I didn’t even know it was possible for me,” said Gault, echoing a common sentiment of Pathway fellows. “It’s not that I don’t have the intelligence; it’s not that I can’t do the job. I just thought that those kinds of things were done by other people.”

Research projects are as diverse as the CNR faculty. The program connects students with a Berkeley faculty member, grad student, or postdoc mentor for the summer. Research from the 2010 cohort included work on generating salt-tolerant plants, examining the impact of the landscapes surrounding agriculture on farm pests, and learning whether naturally cloning redwoods share resources with each other.

More Than a Lab Coat

Gault worked on an ethnobiology study that looked at how the Central Coast Ohlone tribe used fire as a tool to manage the environment and promote biological diversity. The experience upended her ideas about what research was.

Yvette Gault
From: Skyline College
To: Environmental Science Policy and Management

“Chuck, and the park system, and the tribe, and biologists, and botanists, and historians…all came together to make the research program work. I was really fascinated by that aspect, how people from different perspectives could come together to form a better understanding of the situation, to develop future plans.”

“I wasn’t just doing beaker work. I was in the field. I was doing research in the archival library at UC Santa Cruz, making aerial maps of Año Nuevo [Natural Reserve]. I was at the archeological dig at Año Nuevo. I was looking at slabs of redwood, looking at the fire scars to correlate how often Native Americans were using fire as a tool in that area to manage the land,” she said.

Gault said she was also surprised to find out who else was doing research. Chuck Striplen, her Pathway mentor and a Ph.D. student of Huntsinger’s, was also Native American.

“I was just blown away because I thought, here is someone else with a Native American background who is getting their Ph.D. and also doing research on a tribe that he’s culturally connected with,” she said. Seeing all the things Striplen did—research, family, collaboration, networking—expanded her vision of what was possible for herself.

Paying It Forward

In the last phase of the program, the students themselves step into the role of mentor by going into the public schools to teach a science lesson to kids.

Lever says presenting at the symposium and teaching in the schools help the students take ownership of the knowledge they have and gain the skills and confidence to communicate what they know to others.

“These are the skills that are essential for college success,” he said.

In addition to his public school stint, Yim was invited back to Pathway as a mentor, to greet the 2010 cohort. Going in, he didn’t think he was that much of an expert, but quickly remembered what it was like to be new.

“It was great being able to pay it forward,” Yim said.

Maybe paying it forward is what the Pathway program is all about.

Lever agrees. “That’s our mission, taking the educational opportunities at CNR and expanding the number of people—and the kinds of people—who benefit from them.”

-Ann Brody Guy

Help Forge New Pathways

The initial five-year National Science Foundation grant is coming to an end with the 2011 cohort. To support the Environmental Leadership Pathway program, give to the Don Dahlsten Outreach Fund, 114 Giannini Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720, # 3100, or

The Dahlsten Fund was established in 2003 to honor Don Dahlsten’s commitment to supporting underserved youth.


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