For public school students, a taste of arts at Emerson

by Danielle Herrera / Beacon Staff • November 13, 2014

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Through the EmersonPathways program, high school students from around Boston get the opportunity to gain experience in the arts.
Beacon Archives
Through the EmersonPathways program, high school students from around Boston get the opportunity to gain experience in the arts.
Beacon Archives

Genesis Lara has wanted to be an actress since she starred in a fourth-grade production of The Emperor’s New Hair.

Now a 15-year-old sophomore at Boston Arts Academy, Lara is working to advance her acting skills through a new initiative at Emerson. 

EmersonPathways is a free program for Boston public high school students that aims to prepare participants for college and give them the space and support to express themselves through the arts.

“I just feel like there are different ways to deliver an important message,” Lara said, “and different ways to catch people’s attention, and I think [arts] do it in a fun way.”

Launched in September, Pathways was founded by MJ Knoll-Finn, Emerson’s former vice president for enrollment. The college already has two programs aimed at Boston high school students: EmersonWrites, launched in 2010, and EmersonTheater, introduced last year. Both are a semester long, with eight Saturday classes.

Pathways incorporates elements of those existing programs—it has writing and theater tracks, and eight sessions per semester—and expands on them, requiring a three-year commitment and adding a class after lunch about the ins and outs of college.

It’s really about encouraging students to pursue higher education, according to Adena Smith, the senior administrative associate to the vice president for enrollment management. Smith said the staff also hopes Pathways may lead participants to apply to the college. 

“We want to expose the students to the creative arts, build their inner confidence and public voice, and also give them the opportunity to learn on a college campus,” Smith wrote in an emailed statement to the Beacon.

Students from five Boston public high schools are eligible: Boston Arts Academy, Boston Community Leadership Academy, Cristo Rey High School, New Mission High School, and West Roxbury Academy. Those schools, Smith said, indicated their students needed an outlet to enrich artistic interests outside of the classroom.

“We want to…expose students in the area to the arts, especially as many schools are cutting arts funding,” wrote Smith. 

Meghan Karasin, Cristo Rey’s dean of academic resources, said the school has limited access to theater and writing classes, and only offers a drama club for students.

“We look to partner with organizations where our students can gain enrichment in these areas.” Karasin said. “We try to send students to summer programs and extracurricular programs that can support their interests like EmersonPathways.”

Students must first be nominated by their teachers during their freshman year. They can then apply, and, if accepted, begin the program as a sophomore and continue until their graduation.

Pathways is a bit of a challenge for these high school students. Unlike their fellow classmates who can sleep in on Saturday mornings, Pathways participants must wake up early to be at Emerson by 10 a.m.

“I really like theater and I don’t mind going there on a Saturday,” Lara said. “It ends pretty early and it’s also pretty fun, so it doesn’t bother me.”

For the first two hours, students divide into the two programs: theater sessions are at the Paramount Center, and writing workshops are in other Emerson academic buildings. At noon, they have an hour long lunch where they sometimes perform an improv skit or slam poetry. And for the final two hours, they come together for college preparation classes. 

In this semester’s theater sessions, taught by Emerson theater professor Bethany Nelson and Emerson alumna Becca Opstad, 10 students improvise different scenarios, play games, and learn to convey messages to their audiences.

Isabel Silva, a sophomore at Cristo Rey in the Pathways theater track, said the program gives her opportunities that she doesn’t get in her school, like meeting kids her age who have a similar passion for acting and working with teachers who have experience performing on stage.

“It gives us different perspectives and we get to meet different people,” Silva said. “It makes learning theater more fun and interesting.” 

Lara said that currently, students are learning about how power is asserted.

“We are learning the different types of power struggles at home, in school, in the police department,” Lara said. “All different types of power people can have, we act out.”

Nelson and Opstad also give them different everyday life scenarios in which they have to choose which acting style fits that situation best, letting them explore different approaches. Marc Theodule, also a sophomore at Cristo Rey in the theater program, said this method has been helpful.

“I am really into comedy and EmersonPathways has helped me get better at comedy acting,” Theodule said. “We also play a lot of serious parts, so it’s helped me get better at being more serious also.”  

In the writing sessions, one activity involves students reading a short piece of writing and discussing the different techniques in the story, including point of view, tone, and style. Then, students write their own piece of literature, incorporating the techniques they just discussed. 

Jana Walker, a sophomore at Cristo Rey who attends the Pathways writing program, said she enjoys this approach.

“These classes are a great opportunity,” Walker said. “They make me want to be better with my writing and performing my writing.”

She credits her two writing teachers, Caitlin McGill and Joshua Jackson—who are both graduate students at Emerson—for helping her become a stronger, more assured writer. 

“When we start these classes, we aren’t that confident in our writing,” Walker said.

McGill, who also teaches Introduction to College Writing, an undergraduate course at Emerson, has eight students in the Pathways writing session.

“This is a group of students who all want and love to write,” McGill said. “I think the passion is stronger and more present, and it’s also sort of ingrained in them, because if they could choose anything to do on a Saturday morning, they want to be writing.”

She said she felt she couldn’t miss out on this opportunity to teach for Pathways.

“I am just happy to be a part of their journey,” McGill said, “and I just want to help give them their own voice.” 

Pathways students also have two hours of a college programming class taught by Jason Zulianai, an Emerson curriculum coordinator. This class teaches these students about finances, the application process, classes they can take, and jobs that require a bachelor’s or master’s degree. 

Smith said she believes this course gives the students a leg up when they start applying to colleges.

“It’s designed to help them understand the college process,” Smith wrote, “help them plan for their future, teach them basic financial literacy, and help them gain confidence that college is possible with the tools to understand how to make it so.”

Theodule said he wouldn’t get that information from his own high school.

“The college class helps us figure out our expenses and how to use our time wisely,” Theodule said, “which I can really appreciate.”

Pathways currently gets funding from the enrollment management office, Smith said, and the participating Emerson grad students are paid a stipend. But she said the program is looking to expand its staff and find additional financing.

In the future, Pathways hopes to offer a scholarship to Emerson for participants, said Smith, because its students often have less means to afford higher education. All of the Cristo Rey participants, for example, come from low-income families, according to Karasin, and most will be the first in their families to attend college.

The scholarship would only pay for two years at Emerson, and isn’t guaranteed for Pathways participants, Smith said, but would be a full ride, including tuition, room and board, and fees. Smith said Pathways envisions students would pay for two years at a partner community college, then transfer to Emerson.

But even in its first semester, Pathways participants said the program has begun inspiring them to find their inner voices.

“I am always challenging myself,” Lara said, “and now I want to go to a theater college so I can really better myself.”