ACCESS Alumna Yasmiyn Irizarry
All students juggle responsibilities while navigating a semester at The Ohio State University. But spending the end of the day relaxing on the Oval or endlessly scrolling through social media are luxuries rarely afforded to single parent students. For these students, simply navigating a week of classes is a continuous balancing act that could exhaust and discourage even the most determined. Herein lies the origin and mission of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion's ACCESS Collaborative Program. ACCESS (an acronym for A Comprehensive College Experience for Single-Parent Students) focuses on increasing graduation rates via providing resources and opportunities to full-time single students who also maintain full custody of children. Dr. Yasmiyn Irizarry, now an Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, is a testament to the enduring nature of the program's benefits.
Dr. Irizarry was already actively engaged with ODI as an undergrad when she heard about ACCESS and decided to apply. This was a decision that helped her earn a BA in Sociology, and after her time at Ohio State, she went on to earn an MA and PhD in Sociology from Indiana University, Bloomington. She also served as an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Faculty Fellow of the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University. This all positioned Dr. Irizarry to eventually rise to her current position as an Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where she researches inequality in K-20 education at the intersection of race and gender. Her research has been published in a number of highly ranked peer-review journals, and she has received grants from the American Educational Research Association and the Ford Foundation—to name a few. These accumulating achievements are a confirmation of both the work ethic of Dr. Irizarry and the doors opened by the ACCESS Program.
The ACCESS Collaborative Program began in 1989, and in the years since, the program has expanded to include tutoring, housing services, scholarship opportunities, and workshops on relevant topics like stress-management and financial planning skills. “The access program was a space to connect with others who understood the challenges that come with being a student and parent simultaneously and to collaborate on ways to overcome these challenges,” says Irizarry. “We learned how to become better students and parents together. And we supported and celebrated each other.”
The program also provides priority registration for classes which, in combination with childcare services, can be a deceptively significant blessing to student-parents. As Dr. Irizarry attests, at a university as large as Ohio State where thousands of students are vying for the same classes, this convenience has a far-reaching ripple effect of positivity on the lives of these single parent students, granting them literal access to courses they otherwise would have missed. Dr. Irizarry recalls the sense of peace that resulted from being able to enroll in and focus on a required class during daytime hours, versus during early morning or late evening when childcare is typically not available, with the knowledge that one's child is in good hands. “That's everything,” she affirms. “That is everything.”
She also notes that hardly any of the students she met embodied the negative stigmas often attached to young single parents. “None of the women in the program were failing. They were all absolutely phenomenal,” Dr. Irizarry recollects, praising the talent and character of her fellow ACCESS participants. “It was inspiring to be around other young mothers with so much intelligence and ambition. Some of my closest friendships were developed out of my participation in the Access Program.”
Dr. Irizarry also maintains that reaching out to underrepresented groups, be they gender, race, or socioeconomically-based, is particularly important in higher education in order to delve into issues with more nuance and complexity. She elaborates that this diversity is the key to diminishing the number of conversations that exist in an intellectual bubble with a limited awareness of specific community problems and their potential solutions. “Perspective,” she stresses. “The way to get out of that is to bring in people who have different perspectives.”
Dr. Irizarry adds that she now feels a great sense of fulfillment when she hears about the children of fellow ACCESS alumni who are currently heading off to college themselves—her oldest, now a senior in high school, plans to major in graphic design and American Sign Language. In this way, the ACCESS Program not only provides educational and professional development opportunities to individual student-parents, but it ultimately puts them in a stable position to generate opportunities for their children as well, sending the benefits of the program down from generation to generation.
“The most rewarding aspect is that no matter how small or how big, I was afforded the privilege of playing a part in their success,” says ACCESS Program Director, Traci Lewis. “There is nothing better than getting an email or a Facebook message from an alum updating me on their lives and their successes. When you have the support, resources, and cheerleaders in your corner, it is next to impossible to not meet your goals. Dr. Irizarry and the many other ACCESS alums are proof of that.”
Written by ODI staff member Jayhir Johnson