Umoja teaches new way to learn

By Michael Simpson - Staff Reporter

All students in Highline's Umoja group have a personal definition of what the program means.

"A lifeline.  When you're down you need someone to save you," Melanie Williams said.  

"Acting locally, thinking globally," Mackenzie Tinsley said.  

"That someone understands and is willing to act," Jo Robinson said.

"The missing piece that we never knew was missing," Haley Cummins said.

Umoja means unity in Swahili and the program is attempting to close the achievement and opportunity gaps between African Americans and students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Test scores are rising among African American students, but the historical opportunity gap remains, compared to whites and Asians, according to the Washington state Commission on African American Affairs.

Umoja is open to all and offers required and elective classes, such as math, English, science and ethnic studies, which degree seekers take as group throughout the entirety of the one-year program.

This is the first Umoja program in Washington public higher education, entering its third year at Highline.

It was modelled after California Umoja groups.

It features a community center, classroom and study hall in Building 25, which students and professors call "the village."  

Here, students take classes, help each other with assignments, celebrate personal and group achievements, and offer support systems for personal hurdles outside of school.

Umoja Program Coordinator Liz Word said the cohort operates by three principles, called heartbeat practices:

"Raising intentional and deliberate purposefulness," in which all classroom material must be presented to students in a tangible sense that is relatable to everyday life.

"Ethic of love," where students and teachers share their stories of joy and adversity from outside of the classroom instead of hiding their emotions.  

"Manifesting," in which students are expected to teach back what they learned from the classroom with their community outside of school.

Word said she wants the program to spread to colleges across the state and for Highline to adopt Umoja's core practices throughout the entire institution.

Currently, a new cohort is introduced once a year.

Word said she wants to see a new cohort of 25 students added per quarter.

"Umoja meets students where they are, whether it's straight out of high school or making a midlife change," Word said.

Students in the program said they will use Umoja principles throughout life.

Mackenzie Tinsley said she wants to transfer to an historically black college and university, to continue to contribute the Umoja principles that she learned in her new community.

"Umoja has helped me get on the right track," Tinsley said.

Destiny Ezell said she want to transfer to a four-year college and move on to be a lawyer in New York.

"I want to take the practices, whatever we learned, the family to the other colleges that I go to."

Breanne Smith said she wants to transfer to UW to become a speech pathologist.

"I'm always going to remember this experience, because it's a great opportunity to take.  I made a lot of new family in here.  No matter where I am, I'll still always have this Umoja in my heart."

Chalisa Thompson said she is going into nursing and hopes to be a brain surgeon.

"I've always had a thing for helping people," she said.

Jo Robinson said he wants to be a general surgeon with Doctors Without Borders.

"I intend to be a pillar in my community as far as a representation of what is the best that I can do.  And the color of my skin should be very much prevalent," Robinson said.  "I've had a lot of brothers and sisters who have shown me how intelligent and amazing

I could be, so I want to do that to other people as well."

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