Migrant Students Tackle Global Problems Using ACE-IT

“The world that you will enter as a professional is a whole lot different than the world I entered years ago,”  exclaimed Dr. Ernest Wilson, founder of the USC Annenberg Center for Third Space Thinking, to a virtual room of more than 50 high school students. 

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the learning of just about every high school student. Students have endured grueling months of online learning, Zoom calls, and independent work. This year, the Third Space Youth Institute also had to adapt to distant learning, but our students still showed up on Zoom every day eager to learn about how to leverage their soft skills for college and career success. 

We hosted 137 migrant students from the Riverside and Los Angeles counties on Zoom throughout the month of June. Throughout the program the students completed modules, engaged in virtual group discussions and learned how to leverage five core soft skill attributes for problem solving: Adaptability, Cultural Competency, Empathy, Intellectual Curiosity, and 360-Degree Thinking. While our students came from a variety of high schools in Southern California, they worked together to apply the soft skill attributes to their final ACE-IT project. 

The five core soft skills have been particularly useful during the pandemic and will remain essential as we transition back to in-person learning. The students had to quickly adapt to a changing learning environment, once in the classroom all day and now at home, some even multi-tasking while taking care of younger siblings or helping their parents while studying for final exams. The culture of classrooms and appropriate behaviors for learning changed immensely during the pandemic, and transitioning back to in-person class, the students will have to interact with people of different cultures, especially as they enter their post-graduation experiences. Empathy was a major soft skill that many developed as we comforted each other through these tough times, whether it was helping each other cope with the loss of a loved one or grow connections through shared experiences. Everyday we remain curious about when and how “normal” will look years from now. Three hundred and sixty degree thinking is an essential skill in a world of misinformation and opposing narratives about masks, COVID tests, vaccines and how to stay safe. We all must piece together bits of information to keep ourselves and others safe and make the right decisions. 

Looking forward from a post-pandemic world and thinking about issues they care about, the TSYI students worked in groups to present a final project on an issue they care about. Project topics ranged from climate change to the gender pay gap, gun control, immigration reform, and fast fashion. Throughout the two-week program, the students applied the soft skills to their ACE-IT Cause and presented them to their parents during the graduation ceremony. 

One parent commented, “Quiero darles las gracias a todos ustedes por poner a nuestros hijos a un nivel diferente, a un nivel más alto de los que nosotros tuvimos oportunidad. Creo que una de las formas de solucionar los problemas mundiales es precisamente platicando, colaborando, y participando unidamente en equipos para una solución para todos. Las soluciones ya tienen que ser globales y no locales. Hemos estado enlazados ahora por el web y el internet de un problema y ya es mundial– aquí la nueva generación [está] colaborando, participando, tocando los temas importantes. Gracias por esa oportunidad. Los felicito a todos.”

  • I want to thank you all for putting our children at a different level- a higher level than what our opportunities gave us. I think one of the forms of solving global issues is precisely conversing, collaborating, and unitedly participating in teams for a solution for all. The solutions now have to be global, not local. We have been connected now by the web and internet to a global problem – here is the new generation collaborating, participating, touching upon these important topics. Thank you for this opportunity. I congratulate everyone. 

Besides delving into social issues using the ACE-IT model, the students also learned about college and career readiness, choosing the right college, college culture, and paying for college through workshops led by the USC College Advising Corp (CAC).  “I honestly like that we started talking about college institutions. You guys gave us a lot of information and we needed that a lot,” reflected Dulce Rodriguez from Desert Mirage High School. The students’ parents also received more information about the college systems and paying for college during “Parent College Night”. 

The students left the program better prepared for college and entering the workforce. The ACE-IT model is designed to prepare the newest generation for entering a workforce where soft skills are highly in demand, yet undersupplied in the changing job market. The soft skill model also provides a guide for entering college, an environment very unlike high school, where students must learn to be independent and work with a variety of people in unfamiliar situations. When met with tough obstacles, the students are now able to look to their ACE-IT toolbox for guidance on how to overcome their challenges and succeed in the world. 

While the students reflected on how they will be using their soft skills in a demanding workforce, USC professor and mental health advocate Dr. Debra Waters-Roman led a discussion on the importance of taking care of oneself during these tough times. Dr. Waters-Roman touched on the impact that adapting to a fast-changing environment and schedule had on everyone’s mental health during COVID-19. “One of the things a lot of us went through during COVID is we didn’t necessarily stay to our normal routines,” Dr. Waters-Roman stated during the mental health discussion. “You weren’t having as much interaction with your teachers or with your fellow students because we’re all in these boxes and it makes it more difficult than when you’re in a classroom together.” 

Dr. Waters-Roman advised the students to do two things in order to ease their back-to-school anxiety: start a routine at home and get ready for the day as if you were going to school, and start reforming connections with friends and classmates.

Online learning is challenging, but the students of the Migrant Education Program in Los Angeles and Riverside counties still used their soft skills to adapt to the online program, and succeeded exceptionally with their ACE-IT projects. So many social issues have come to light during the pandemic, as well, and the new generation of leaders remains curious about issues such as sustainability, racial injustice, and the increasing effects of climate change. Nevertheless, there is hope that our future leaders will be able to see things in a 360-degree perspective and be able to collaborate with people of different cultures in order to shape a better world for all.