Fresno High grad reaches out to students at her alma mater

Sociology major MaryJane Skjellerup is reaching out by reaching back--to Fresno High School, that is.

Skjellerup is using the power and allure of technology to introduce Hmong and Latino youth in her native Fresno to what's available for them at the university.

Skjellerup, a graduate of Fresno High School and a senior at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has single-handedly launched the Community and Technology Leadership Program to encourage Fresno High students from disadvantaged backgrounds to get on track for college. She uses a combination of hands-on training in sophisticated digital media technology, mentoring, and academic advising to give teenagers a taste of what's available to college students.

"I want to encourage kids to come to the university by giving them skills that will boost their confidence and make them feel unique," said Skjellerup. "I want to show them we're willing to invest in them."

Skjellerup says UCSC attracts idealists, and she has coupled her own idealism with activism. With little more than her own commitment and minimal start-up funds from UCSC's Global Information Internship Program (GIIP), Skjellerup went back to her hometown with a proposal Fresno High administrators jumped at.

"This is the first time we've ever done anything like this, but it has been very worthwhile," said Fresno High business computer technology teacher Helen Herzog, who coordinates the project with Skjellerup with the support of her department chair, Delaine Zody. "A lot of our students have a very narrow vision of the opportunities open to them after they graduate from high school. This has opened their eyes to the options that are available for them. MaryJane has been a great help and an inspiration to them."

Herzog and Zody selected six high school students who came to UCSC for a two-day summer workshop. Tapping the two-inch-thick training manual she put together for the workshop, Skjellerup describes a daunting itinerary that covered college admissions, a campus tour, web and graphic design instruction, and a daylong hands-on digital film and editing course.

With that introduction, the students returned to high school this fall where they are working with Skjellerup and their teachers on community-service projects to prepare oral histories of members of the Hmong and Latino communities in Fresno. The group will produce two short video documentaries about their subjects and post them on a web site about cultural awareness they will design and launch.

"There are 40,000 Southeast Asian refugees in Fresno. There's tremendous cultural diversity all around them," said Skjellerup. "But when I ask the kids if they know their own parents' stories, they say 'No.' They don't think it's important. I want to change that."

Skjellerup says working with high school students is "refreshing."

"They learn so fast compared to adults," she said. Now that they've gotten a taste of technology, Skjellerup hopes they'll stick with it and see college as a way to build their expertise. So far, the program is a hit, with all participants saying they want to return next year to help the "new kids."

If she can secure funding, Skjellerup would like to expand her program next summer to a two-week residential workshop with five students from six schools. Herzog, too, would like the program to continue, with Skjellerup's protégés working one-on-one next semester to share their new knowledge and skills with Herzog's other students. "The students are learning the newest technology--technology I hope they'll share if we are able to purchase the necessary software licenses and upgrade our equipment," said Herzog.

Skjellerup's passion for learning is matched by her desire to make the world a better place, so designing and launching the Community and Technology Leadership Program came naturally. From the beginning of her own years at UCSC, she has approached college as a model hands-on learner. She discovered GIIP (pronounced "jeep") during her sophomore year and has used it as a platform for action ever since.

"Sociology is one of the majors that lets you know about the problems in the world, all the inequality," said Skjellerup. "When it comes to really accomplishing things, people can get lost between their ideals and the implementation of real change." GIIP, she said, is "a mechanism for change."

UCSC sociology professor Paul Lubeck launched GIIP in 1998 to address growing inequality in access to information networks and global communications. Lubeck couldn't be more pleased by Skjellerup's enthusiasm, and the difference she is making for young people in Fresno.

"MaryJane is amazing," said Lubeck. "She has really taken the ball and run with it. Now she's taking the GIIP vision into the high school, and that's incredible."

By giving Hmong and Latino students at Fresno High the tools of high-tech communication, Skjellerup is contributing to GIIP's mission to "democratize globalization."

"Globalization is not just about making financial transactions easier," she said. "It's a whole new playing field, and if you don't know the rules, you have no chance of succeeding. We're helping people learn the rules."