Focused on Service
Focusing on College and Unlimited Success (FOCUS), an Honors College organization devoted to helping at-risk high school students, was recently named one of ten winners of the Chancellor’s Sesquicentennial Service Award.
“It’s a huge honor to us,” said Mark Dochterman, Honors College Student Activities Coordinator who serves as the program’s advisor. “I think it’s awesome that FOCUS is being recognized in the same breath as these big-time names and organizations … I take it as a signifier that the work we’re doing is real and transformative.”
FOCUS has grown substantially since its beginnings in 2004, when LSU Honors students set out to preserve the humanities programs often cut from school curricula by offering enrichment to students in under-performing schools in the East Baton Rouge Public School System.
The organization has set out to “expand the opportunities for high-achieving, at-risk high school students while also offering leadership development and service-learning experiences for LSU Honors College students."
“One thing that really sets FOCUS apart from other projects is that it’s one hundred percent implemented and organized by Honors students” said Dochterman. “With FOCUS, there’s no safety net — their actions are impacting someone else’s life. It’s a huge step to becoming leaders. They recognize their personal limitations as well as their strengths.”
During the last two weeks of July, FOCUS members put on a summer seminar to live up to that mission. The students who put on the camp first must take an Honors class in which they learn about the history of education and pedagogy while performing service-learning work in the community.
They then plan the entire curriculum, and student seminar leaders teach daily classes in music, philosophy, art, theatre, creative writing, dance and cooking.
“We’re not just arts and humanities,” said Dochterman. “We offer a science seminar and we also invite each senior college to host a lunch with us, so that participants learn what the colleges are about and what people do when they graduate with that degree.”
Dochterman said FOCUS provides its participants with a demystified view of higher education so that they will realize their own ability to succeed in college.
“We try to show them that college is a possibility for them,” he said. “They leave seeing the link between education and success. They leave knowing someone who is successful in college and with a greater belief that they can have access to college and can afford it.”
Program participants live on LSU’s campus, taking classes that simulate the college experience. They choose a “focus area,” take a college preparatory course, and develop a final project to be presented at the end of the two-week seminar.
“FOCUS was probably my favorite Honors College thing I’ve done — it was just a great experience,” said Ian Cruise, an Honors philosophy major.
Cruise said he decided to participate in FOCUS because of the injustice students in under-performing schools face when it comes to education.
“Injustice is something I’m passionate about,” he said. “It’s all about the achievement gap. It’ s essentially that where you’re born has such dramatic impact on the education you receive. The worst schools are always in the poorest neighborhoods … there are questions of justice there.”
Dochterman said the program’s goal is to eventually have 100 percent of FOCUS participants admitted to college.
“We’ve followed up with as many of the students as we can,” he said. “It doesn’t end (when the camp is over). FOCUS members are assigned to a high school student and become their mentor. We’ve taken students out to shop or just to vent — we stay in touch with them.”
Research on FOCUS has been presented at several national conferences — Honors students independently presented at the Gulf South Summit — and the program has won several grants, including $45,000 from the Special Children’s Foundation and annual funding from Shell.
In addition to grants, FOCUS is also funded through a student-run fundraiser held every year called “Art Serving Art.” Local artists donate their work and FOCUS members organize an auction whose proceeds benefit the summer program.
“The responsibility the Honors students take on is amazing, but every year they continue to amaze me,” said Dochterman.
Story by Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831
Story by Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College
For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831