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Youth Opportunity Program celebrates silver anniversary

STANFORD -- For a quarter of a century, Stanford University's Youth Opportunity Program has been taking young students from nearby communities and teaching real-life skills in an on-campus employment program.

Since 1968, program organizers said, many things about the program have changed with the times, but the primary focus has remained constant as participants battle to overcome obstacles ranging from poverty or unplanned pregnancy to just being a teen-ager.

The eight-week summer program was started as an affirmative action measure to increase the overall cultural diversity of the campus. The Youth Opportunity Program recruits students 14 to 21, with special consideration given to young people of color, the financially disadvantaged and the disabled. Most applicants come from the cities of East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Mountain View.

Competition for any job is fierce in California's recessed economy, and 300 students applied for the 60 openings this summer. Stanford graduate student William Franklin, who is the YOP student adviser, tries to match the interests of applicants to the available positions, giving priority to returning YOP participants.

Campus jobs offered through the program range from groundskeeping to laboratory research support to the most common - general office work. Each student works under the guidance of his or her own supervisor, a Stanford employee.

The program today

While the YOP has employed more than 100 students in past summers, this year the smaller number allows staff members to spend more time with each student, said Valerie Beeman, the YOP coordinator for the past three years.

In addition to their jobs, the students take field trips - everything from going to a San Francisco Giants' baseball game to touring Branner Hall, a freshman dormitory - and attend weekly workshops on such topics as "Going to College" and "Your Well-Being."

The workshops have proven to be especially helpful, Beeman said.

"Recently, we had a workshop on dealing with discrimination," she said. "We asked the students if they had anything to share. One student said, 'My age. People think I'm young, that I don't know anything, and can't do anything.'"

"We see that for many of the students, this opportunity is the one good thing, maybe the only good thing, that's going on in their lives," Beeman said. "It's a positive experience that could really make a difference in terms of

how their future turns out. But these other barriers are getting in their way."

Beeman said that she has been overwhelmed with the positive response among staff and faculty to the YOP.

"People are more inclined to train and teach young people in this nurturing university environment," Beeman said. "The thing that this program gives is some adult guidance - teaching, modeling professional behavior, talking about college. For example, we have workshops about financial aid, which shouldn't be a barrier to one's dreams. I didn't know anything about that when I was in high school, and I didn't know the right questions to ask, either."

Beeman said that the most common workplace problem with the students is lateness.

"Some need it drilled into their heads that they are being trained, that there are certain expectations about a job," she said. "With supervisors, I find many err on the side of compassion. It's hard for them to find a balance

between 'I'm the supervisor and I need certain things completed,' and 'This might be their first job, so I should let them prove themselves.'"

Providing new services

While the university provides the annual operating budget for the program, external sources have enabled the program to enhance services, Beeman said. This summer the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Odell Fund provided supplemental grants.

The Packard Foundation grant enabled the YOP to hire a part-time social services counselor, who provides professional counseling, as needed, with personal issues and educates students about community resources.

"This is the first summer we've had a social worker, and we really needed one," Beeman said. "Many of the students are facing some tough personal issues that create problems with their program participation. By having a skilled social worker, we can help them see that a lot of problems can be resolved and that somebody cares enough to help."

Some join regular staff

A little-known bonus is the Youth Opportunity Program's contribution to the permanent staff at Stanford.

"Many Stanford staff members began their careers here as YOP students," Beeman said. "In just the last two years, six students were hired into regular positions, which means that they can receive Staff Tuition Assistance Funds to help them finish college. It's just amazing. They come back to say 'Hi, and thanks.'"

Beeman pointed out, however, that "it's not a goal of the program to act as an employment agency for the university. We just want to give some kids a break, show them what the working world is about, and have them be respected for their contributions, not put down because of their age, color or lack of income."

Gabriela Valencia entered the YOP during her first year of college.

"I was just an office assistant without a title," Valencia said. "I didn't know anything, so I was just filing and copying." She perfomed so well, however, that her supervisor recommended her for a regular staff position, and she now is an office assistant at the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

"I wouldn't have known about the job without YOP," Valencia said. "I'm so satisfied, and I truly appreciate the nice people at YOP."

Olyvia Han is an East Palo Alto high school student currently in the program, doing light secretarial work and some computer research in the department of communication.

"It's a great program that gives you real experience," Han said of her YOP job. "It's hard for the socioeconomically disadvantaged in inner cities - hard to get a job, hard to help young people. This gives me something worthwhile to do over the summer, too."


This story was written by Elizabeth Bacon, a news writing intern with the Stanford News Service.


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