When CSU Channel Islands (CSUCI) alumnus Danna Hernandez immigrated to Oxnard from Mexico with her family when she was six, her parents couldn’t afford tutors to help her as she struggled with elementary school.

“I had no tutors or any help at home,” Hernandez said. “I was learning English as a second language and it was already a challenge just to overcome that. It gave me a motive to want to help others.”

Hernandez, 25, is now able to realize her desire to tutor children as part of the newly-formed Center for Community Engagement (CCE) STEM Corps. The Corps was launched this fall thanks to a CSUCI Strategic Initiative Grant of $43,000.

“Historically, tutoring has been shown to really help with students’ achievement, but even more so with the COVID pandemic and students having to learn online, which might not be their primary mode for learning,” said Director of the CCE Pilar Pacheco.

Pacheco hired Hernandez and six other CSUCI undergraduate and graduate students to join or “embed” themselves in classes at CSUCI’s partner elementary school, the University Preparation Charter School (UPS) in Camarillo. Pacheco was able to add an additional three tutors as part of the CSU Mathematics and Science Teacher Initiative (MSTI), which provides scholarships for math and science students to participate in programs like the STEM UPS Corps.

“These three students will be virtually tutoring children from the farm worker housing communities, Villa Cesar Chavez, and Meta Street Apartments,” said Pacheco, who is facilitating this part of the project with CSUCI Assistant Professor of Education Kara Naidoo, Ph.D. “Both properties are a part of Cabrillo Economic Development.”

The program is being offered through the Cabrillo Economic Development Corporation, which will have families sign their children up for a tutor. Naidoo explained the tutor will go online and work with students in 30-minute increments with coursework.

“This CSUCI STEM Corps program is an important community outreach program as it provides extra academic support and mentoring for children of farm workers,” Naidoo said. “This is especially important right now during virtual instruction to lessen the learning loss, support distance learning and increase one-on-one support for these students.”

The age range of the students being tutored is anywhere from kindergarten to 12th grade, according to Villa Cesar Chavez Resident Manager Cristina Heredia, who is a CSUCI alumna.

Due to COVID-19 and having school virtually, it is hard for students to get that one-on-one help that they need, and that could potentially hold them back,” Heredia said. “This also alleviates the pressure on parents who may not understand the material that is being presented to the children as many of the parents on our properties do not speak English well.”

Over at UPS, the tutors are making a big difference in several ways, according to Special Projects Coordinator Rebecca Kruse.

“We have found that student participation increases in smaller groups, especially in an online setting,” Kruse said. “The mentors facilitate small group discussions in breakout rooms centered on STEM topics. These smaller group discussions can happen only because we have another adult ‘in the room.’ Another way mentors are making a difference is by providing tutoring and extra support to students who need some extra review or time to practice skills.”

CSUCI Biology and Anthropology double major student and STEM Corps tutor Evelyn Garcia, 21, was eager to sign up to be a STEM Corps tutor as she had tutored with the CCE before and loved it. Garcia hopes to go into forensic anthropology, which she might never have considered had she not had encouragement from teachers and help from her family.

“I struggled with math when I was little and my brother and dad would help,” she said. Garcia and her siblings are in the first generation to attend college, which she wants to do all she can to blaze a trail for others who want to open up their career possibilities.

“I know how to pick strawberries,” said Garcia, who comes from a farm working family. “I know how it feels to be out there 12 hours a day.”

When hiring tutors like Hernandez and Garcia, Pacheco looks for academic qualifications, but also took into consideration traits like dedication, background and passion.

“A majority of the students are from this area and talked about the importance of success and achievement in life,” Pacheco said. “They all have a background in STEM. The tutors I hired talked about their community in a selfless way. These are students who want to use their life experiences and education to create change in the community.”

Hernandez graduated from CSUCI in 2017 with a degree in Liberal Arts and is now pursuing her teaching credential, so joining the STEM Corps was a perfect fit. She hopes to one day become the type of teacher who was so important to her own academic journey. “I had a bilingual teacher and when I was in her class, I felt like I was actually a person,” Hernandez said. “She understood the challenges kids like me faced. She put herself in our shoes. That’s my ultimate goal. To follow in my teacher’s footsteps and understand not just bilingual students, but all students.”