Just as the infamous Los Angeles smog fogs the skies, its diversity can cloud the fact that racism and prejudice still exist. Civil unrest in the Middle East and recent local events involving discrimination against others have brought such issues to the limelight. One CSUN program hopes to curb discrimination early on, specifically by focusing on young people’s perceptions of it.
Students Take Out Prejudice promotes tolerance and understanding of different cultures, religions, ethnicities and more to young high school students. Psychology professor Michele Wittig, Ph.D., created STOP with the help of CSUN psychology students. Through her class, Psychology 432: Applied Intergroup Relations and Conflict Mediation, she trains CSUN students to speak to high school students and facilitate class discussion about prejudice.
Wittig said her students learn how to apply the theories they have learned in creating class discussions and activities. Her class consists of both undergraduate and graduate psychology students. Some are service interns, or those who facilitate the class discussions, while others are research interns, or those who regularly collect the data from surveys issued throughout the semester. The training involves learning how to manage a classroom, defer to teachers if there are any discipline problems, and answer questions that delineate from the lecture.
High school students in the L.A. Unified School District are required to complete a life skills class in their freshman year of high school. Wittig collaborates with Northridge Academy High School to work STOP into the curriculum, thus fulfilling this requirement. She brought the program to NAHS after working with Granada Hills Charter High School.
NAHS is located on the northeast side of CSUN’s campus, in a former CSUN parking lot. According to Wittig, it opened just two years ago with only a freshman class, and has a special relationship with CSUN. She added that its proximity to campus makes it easy on the psychology students who visit the high school once a week for two hours. Each visit includes a lecture, followed by an activity that draws upon the topic discussed.
“The lessons after the lectures are used to give the students experiential awareness as opposed to just intellectual information,” Wittig said.
This semester’s discussions and activities dealt with a range of topics, such as distinguishing institutional racism from individual racism and the differences and similarities of religion, among others. Wittig gave an example of the activity used after the students’ discussion on classism, or prejudice based on a group’s social or economic status. She said they divided the high school students into different groups, which represented different classes (i.e., upper class, middle class and working class) present in society. Each group was given paper bags and asked to create something using various resources allotted to them depending on their class. Wittig said it was interesting to watch how the students used their resources and worked with each other.
“We like to provide examples students will appreciate. The solutions, they might not be that practical, but it teaches them to think outside the box,” said Wittig.
Michael Gross, a teacher at NAHS, hosts the program in his life skills class this semester, so he has observed first-hand how it has affected the students. He said STOP has proven to be very successful.
“It builds awareness. We generally assume our perspectives, (but the program has taught each student) to assume someone else’s perspective to varying degrees,” he said.
Wittig said their goal goes beyond promoting tolerance to the students. She hopes that through her students’ presence at the high school and the mini-field trips the students take to CSUN to observe regular college classes, students will aspire to think about attending college after high school.
“I like the notion that CSUN students act as ambassadors. ? High school students who normally think they are not college material (get a different opinion of themselves through the program),” Wittig said.
“It is good to get college students involved,” Gross said. “They get the younger people and can relate in a different way. It’s structured, but there’s an informality to (their lectures).”
Wittig said the program is beneficial to the psychology students as well as the high school students. She said the psychology students improve their interpersonal and speaking skills. They also create posters based on their research and present them at conferences and some even co-author publications with professors.
Jonathan Zeledon, a first-year graduate psychology student, became involved in STOP as an undergraduate psychology major. He said as an undergraduate, he was just going through the motions, but the program inspired him to continue his education. This semester, Zeledon has moved beyond a service intern. He also trains the other CSUN students enrolled in Wittig’s class and helps develop the curriculum. However, he does not allow his role as a teacher’s assistant to separate him from his peers.
“We collaborate. I like to hear everyone’s ideas ? By the end of the semester, it is a group effort, so everyone feels involved,” he said.
He said the relationship he builds with the high school students, which can be anywhere from 25 to 40 students in a classroom at once, has also inspired him to consider teaching.
“I really got to know the students. The rapport we built was really fulfilling ? I feel like I’m giving back what I’ve learned,” Zeledon said.
Through a side project, Zeledon would like to assess different avenues for exploring how students’ perceptions of prejudice can be affected at an earlier stage. Wittig said she is also interested in extending their work to younger students in middle schools.
Zeledon said the high school students are learning to see the world as a global community.
“We want them to think beyond what they know. They see how their actions affect not just their neighborhoods, but other neighborhoods ? They are the future leaders of our world, so they need to know how their actions create a social reality,” he said.
Psychology 432 will be held during the spring 2007 semester on Tuesdays from 2 to 5:50. It is a four-unit, labor-intensive class requiring two extra hours a week as a service or research intern for the program.