Doctoral Students Help Improve College Access for Underprivileged Youth in Rochester

Students Engage in Real-life, Social Justice Research to Enhance E.Z. Scholarship Program

A college education presents countless opportunities, especially to those who have access, but many youth today encounter personal and economic barriers that hinder their ability to meet their college-going aspirations. Helping at-risk youth, particularly those who are from low-income families, realize and achieve their dream of a postsecondary education has been a long-standing personal interest of one particular retired business owner, and a group of Warner School doctoral students recently gained real-life experience that will help improve the way he supports these teenagers.

Eric Zeller, former owner of Zeller Electric Corporation of Rochester, began reaching out to youth from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds nearly twenty years ago as a way to eliminate financial obstacles for high school students, who have shown true academic promise, to achieve a higher education. Today, he sponsors city students, with all expenses paid, and has sent half a dozen kids to college over the past decade.

His goal has been to improve access to and success in postsecondary education for disadvantaged, underrepresented, and first-generation college students. Zeller, whose own father received a similar scholarship from a family friend, has committed to donating his entire estate to this cause so that eventually 30 to 40 students per year will reap the benefits of the E.Z. Scholarship Program, which is administered through the Hillside Family of Agencies.

Zeller says that others have tried to do this in the past, but often the scholarship programs have failed, so he turned to the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education to help sustain and improve on all aspects of the program. “These programs often run a few years and then run out of gas,” he explains. “I don’t want that to happen. I need program expertise from a knowledgeable source and Warner is the perfect place to get that—I know it is.”

Associate Professor Douglas Guiffrida and a group of eight doctoral students from an advanced doctoral seminar partnered with Zeller this past summer to strengthen his unyielding commitment to Rochester youth—a vision that both he and the Warner School community share. These children, who have limited resources and who don’t otherwise have easy access to higher education, are able to attend college debt free with support from the E.Z. Scholarship Program.

City youth are not the only ones who will benefit from this research. Equally important, Warner doctoral students were able to learn qualitative research in a way that was meaningful and has impacted the Rochester community.

“These students are real people,” explains Adrienne Morgan, a Ph.D. student in educational thought and policy who chose to focus her own dissertation research on asset-driven ways to help African-American males succeed in medical school. “They are real lives and real stories of what’s going on, and so that made it so much more relevant and more of an important issue for us because we knew that we were impacting so many people’s lives with our own research.”

This real-life practical exercise was a great example of how students bridge research and theory as part of their Warner School experience. Using grounded theory as their qualitative research method, these doctoral students looked at the E.Z. Scholarship Program from various angles to see what’s going on and what can be done to improve the program, run it systematically, and ensure sustainability. They listened to the voices of program founder Eric Zeller, Hillside employees who administer the program, and current and past recipients of the scholarship, and looked at everything from recruiting and supporting students and communicating with families to utilizing finances and managing expectations. They then made recommendations that will help the program thrive.

“The learning curves we had as students here at Warner were off the charts,” says Monica Miranda Smalls, who is working toward a doctoral degree in higher education. “This project provided tremendous experience for us in the classroom, and Eric was able to see the impact he has made. It helped us to see that we can do good in the community in which we live.”

Their research findings gave Zeller an opportunity to look at his program from a different lens and to see what’s going on and how he can sustain that. Morgan explains that one of the recommendations that they gave him was to start a board of advisors for the E.Z. Scholarship Program so that he can not only begin to grow it from a standpoint of getting more mentors involved but to also grow it so that people will add to the scholarship so that it’s not just 30 to 40 students anymore—it can be hundreds of kids.

“I think our research will have a significant impact on the success of the program,” explains Guiffrida, who focuses his own research on college student retention. “The students’ findings will help shape the way this program identifies and supports the college success of underprivileged students in Rochester.”

Guiffrida also says that the opportunity for doctoral students to learn doing real-world research was equally as important as how their research will make an impact on the world. “The impact in this case is improving the opportunities for underprivileged kids who are really diamonds in the rough and need extra support,” he adds.

Tags: doctoral student experience, Douglas Guiffrida, research, student experience, student experience