Initiative Collaborators

The R.E.A.L. student narrative initiative had several sponsors: Tisch College, the Pratt family, the Diversity Fund, and the R.E.A.L. Student Organization. The essay below was written by Mindy Nierenberg about the collaboration between the R.E.A.L. program and Tisch College.

The mission of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service is “to prepare Tufts students to become engaged public citizens and community leaders who will help build a more equitable world. Why, therefore, did Tisch College choose to collaborate with the REAL Program to create this book? The answer may not be immediately obvious, yet the connections are there. In my mind, this nexus lives under the surface as a root system that feeds the Tufts University vision, and serves to support the institution as a thriving, vibrant community.

What does it mean to be an engaged public citizen? At Tisch College we define it as “understanding and believing in the democratic ideals of participation and the need to incorporate the voice, perspective, and contributions of every member of the community.  The REAL Program was founded to offer a chance for an education to adult women who did not previously have access to a selective university, women who through familial responsibilities or societal norms were restricted from pursuing knowledge, contributing to the community and having their voices be heard. Since that first day in 1970 when women became the first REAL students, and then since 1976 when the program began to include adult men, the REAL Program has provided otherwise disenfranchised or adult learners the powerful tool of a Tufts education. The REAL Program itself is helping to build a more equitable world by virtue of its very existence.

Many REAL students come to Tufts as "engaged public citizens" They have done active citizenship work in their home communities, or in some cases on a national or international level. While at Tufts, many of these REAL students are able to leverage their previous experiences to new levels of engagement, benefiting not only those communities they work with, but the Tufts population as well.

REAL student Michelle Botus attended Bunker Hill Community College as a formerly homeless single mother, supported by the One Family Scholars Program, "a not-for-profit organization devoted to ending family homelessness in Massachusetts" Michelle successfully earned her associates degree from Bunker Hill, where she gave back to that community consistently through her work in student government and as the student member of the school’s Board of Trustees. At Tufts, she received a Civic Engagement Fund grant from Tisch College for her work with Project Hope, a nonprofit based in Dorchester that works in partnership with families so they can move up and out of poverty. She assists adult learners prepare for the GED by providing women with one-on-one tutoring in subjects identified as most challenging. Last year, a team of students in the Media and Public Service course "Producing Films for Social Change" created a film featuring Michelle called The Price of Education. The film focused on Michelle"s resiliency, her dreams and goal to be educated, and her work to conquer poverty for her own family and others. It was a revelation to many "traditional-aged" students that REAL students such as Michelle are fellow classmates, and have overcome incredible odds to be here. Over two hundred attended the showing of that film; countless more have viewed the DVD or seen it on the program's website and benefited from its message.

Tina Johnson, the Tufts doctoral student leading the creation of this book was a REAL student as a Tufts undergraduate. Tina came to Tufts through the encouragement of a faculty member at the community college Tina attended in Virginia. She grew up living often in poverty with her single mother and siblings, and had never dreamed about the possibility of attending a school like Tufts. In rural Virginia, Tina did community-based work, running an after school program and working with juveniles who had been sentenced to community service. Tina graduated from Tufts, stayed to get her Masters in Child Development, and is now in the Tufts Interdisciplinary PhD. Program. She has been a role model not only for Tufts students but for others, including her own mother. Tina’s mother had been in and out of prison over the years. Inspired by her daughter, she began teaching fellow incarcerated women to read, and when released from prison went to college to become a social worker. For the past three and a half years, Tina has been a work-study assistant at Tisch College, advising Citizenship and Public Service Scholars and serving as the graduate assistant for the Active Citizenship Summer Program. Students have benefited greatly from Tina’s perspectives and depth of knowledge and compassion that she brings to her work.

Michelle, and Tina both embody resiliency, a common thread connecting REAL students that has relevance to the pursuits of active citizenship. Defined as the ability to meet challenges of adverse circumstances with success, REAL students are often models of resiliency. Numerous research studies have been undertaken to study the phenomena of resiliency, seeking answers to questions such as whether the capacity for resiliency lies within each human being. Researchers are also examining community-based approaches to resiliency. Are there conditions that can be replicated to foster resiliency? What are the roles that a community can play in fostering resilient youths and adults that can overcome high risk circumstances and challenges? Lessons can be learned towards the goal of building healthy communities when the model of characteristics of resilient individuals is applied. The essence of resiliency is an asset-based model, one that identifies strengths rather than focusing on deficits, which is a model that Tisch College utilizes in our work with students.

The junction of the REAL Program, Tisch College, and Tufts University is one of reciprocity and mutual benefits. The REAL students bring perspectives to both the classroom and co-curricular life that would otherwise be absent. The Tufts University vision statement reads: “We value a diverse community of women and men of different races, religions, geographic origins, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientations, personal characteristics, and interests--where differences are understood and respected. The REAL Programs brings to Tufts all of these factors, yet it brings another diversity criteria not stated- that of age and experience. It is in this way that REAL students, through virtue of their previous life experiences contribute to a dynamic, vital center of learning. Tufts students who venture beyond their classrooms into the community not only create positive change; they also learn from the community members they work with and meet. It is important to realize, though, that Tufts students also have the opportunity to learn from the diverse experiences of their peers, especially the REAL students. Gender equity, socioeconomic class, immigration, and countless other issues lie within the lives of REAL students, who bring these rich perspectives to the Tufts campus.

As an institution, we are committed to improving the human condition through education and discovery. Beyond this commitment, we will strive to be a model for society at large. We want to foster an attitude of 'giving back' an understanding that active citizen participation is essential to freedom and democracy, and a desire to make the world a better place. This, too, is a part of the Tufts vision statement. Its connection to Tisch College is readily apparent, yet when one views this vision through the lens of the REAL Program, the intersection gains another dimension. The existence of the REAL Program is a demonstration of this commitment on an institutional level. There is recognition that there are members of society whose 'human condition' has prevented access to higher education at a time in the life cycle when those more privileged are able to attend college. The REAL Program allows men and women access to “education and discovery that would otherwise not be possible.

Dean Robert Hollister, a founder and Dean of Tisch College has written: “lives of active citizenship are not a string of episodic acts, rather they are a journey, a life-long exploration and quest, a lifelong process of trying out new approaches, and of rethinking and learning.  Learning, too, is a lifelong process. We cannot begin to measure the effects that Tufts has had on REAL students, nor the effects of the REAL program on Tufts. Yet this book attempts to do just that, and between its pages lay real stories of real people who have achieved what many have considered the impossible. They have a Tufts education and Tufts itself, through the creation and sustenance of the REAL Program, has demonstrated its commitment to "building a more equitable world."