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SALT LAKE CITY — A series of summer picnics at parks on the west side of Salt Lake City hopes to encourage residents, especially young people, to envision a college education.
The idea behind University Neighborhood Partners is to bring together the University of Utah and west side community. The program, in its 12th year, works to redress historical inequity in underrepresented communities by understanding systemic barriers that have prevented access to higher education.
"One of the biggest things we always hear from parents and youth is ‘the university is on the hill, it's not accessible to me' (or) ‘it's not something I can strive for. I'll be doing junior college or something else other than the university,'" said Melanie Hooten, director of the Office of Inclusion and Outreach at the University of Utah School of Medicine."
The University of Utah School of Medicine is one of the partners in this program. Hooten said the partnership works to get kids interested in science and medicine at an early age through programs across the state. Demonstrating these activities at the picnics in the park was just a natural partnership.
It wasn't so much building bridges from the east side to the west side, but it was more knocking down some walls between the east side and west side.
"We could start off doing activities with the youth at partners in the park in science and medicine and get them interested and keep them interested," Hooten said.
Alma Ida Yanagui attended one of these picnics in the park activities seven years ago. She said it changed her life. She took a course that offered high school, GED or college credits.
"At the time I was interested in giving my own children guidance of how they should be interested in their own education and how education should be important in our lives," Yanagui said.
Yanagui said she didn't know how she would achieve that goal and be the role model for her kids until she completed the course.
"My son will be graduating from high school next year," she said. "He will be the first in four generations to do that traditionally."
Culturally, Yanagui, who is of Hispanic heritage, said her son's accomplishment paves the way for her posterity. When she was growing up, Yanagui said her family didn't talk about pursuing higher education.
"The minute a student says I live on the west side, automatically the standards for that child are lower," Yanagui said. "That was a cycle I had to choose on my own to break so that my children didn't think the way I was taught to believe."
There's a noticeable divide in educational opportunities between residents on the east and west sides of Salt Lake City, according to John Fackler, alumni associate director at the University of Utah.
"It wasn't so much building bridges from the east side to the west side, but it was more knocking down some walls between the east side and west side," Fackler said.
As demographics continue to change in Utah, those changes are being reflected at the university as well.
"We've definitely seen an increase in minorities applying to the University of Utah and being accepted and then also going on to graduate programs, whether it's at the University of Utah or somewhere else," Hooten said.
The picnics at the park offer games and activities from different educational departments from the University of Utah and their community partners.
Photo Credit: University Neighborhood Partners