University Goes Back to Basics to Reach Minority Students

By Norlin, Elaina | American Libraries, August 2001 | Go to article overview
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University Goes Back to Basics to Reach Minority Students


Norlin, Elaina, American Libraries


THE SECRET IS TO START BY UNDERSTANDING A GIVEN GROUP'S NEEDS AND INTERESTS

A University of Arizona freshman from Korea said it all during a library-sponsored focus-group session: "I normally do not come into the library." Few of his friends did, either, he said.

After the UA Library conducted the focus groups of incoming students for three semesters, it emerged that many minority and international students found the library overwhelming and usually went, instead, to one of four student cultural centers on campus or the very crowded Global Student Center, which provides places for socializing and sometimes a small computer lab where they can write their papers or do research on the Internet. The trend was a major concern for the UA Library, whose mission includes being an inclusive place, especially for diverse populations. After several semesters of inviting minority and international students to a basic bibliographic instruction session and encouraging them-unsuccessfully--to return to the library soon, the library switched from passive to active mode by carrying its information-literacy message and technology expertise to the centers.

Program moves in new directions

To accomplish this, the library decided to broaden and improve its Peer Information Counseling (PIC) program.

Traditionally, the program coordinator recruited undergraduate minority and international students and provided them with training in information literacy and basic library research skills; the PIC students then worked evenings and weekends on the reference desk. The PIC program had been in place since 1993 but had become stagnant, with a high turnover rate both among PIC coordinators and among the student workers, who did not feel a sense of community at the library or of purpose for their work. Among other shortcomings, working on the reference desk did not provide a complete picture of what today's academic library professionals do, which usually includes bibliographic instruction, integrating technology to produce new Web products and services, and outreach to faculty and other campus constituencies.

In 1998, the library's Undergraduate Services Team expanded on the PIC program by developing partnerships with campus cultural centers and student service organizations. The team received more money so it could recruit more students, offer them more hours of service, and provide them with technology training. The training includes workshops in PowerPoint, HTML coding, Dreamweaver and Adobe PhotoShop; most of these classes are available free at the library, which also has an Information Commons that allows students, staff, and faculty to use multimedia software programs and integrate them into their work or class assignments. The PIC students also work as assistants in some of the workshop classes to gain experience in instruction and in working one on one with a variety of technology users.

Finally, the students are also trained in marketing and presentation as a way to get them working as a team, developing products and marketing their services to the cultural centers on campus.

From indifference to acceptance

With the new technology training in place for the PIC students, I as the new PIC program coordinator began working with the four campus cultural and international centers, which target African Americans, Native Americans, Chicanos-Latinos, and Asians-Pacific Islanders. Being new to the university and the library, I assumed that these organizations would be thrilled to see their students receive free library assistance with research- and technology-related problems, but my initial attempts were often met with indifference or even hostility. The PIC students during this time made several presentations at the cultural centers, but we quickly realized that we needed to backtrack and try a new approach. In the meantime, the PIC students concentrated on creating Web pages that dealt with grants, employment opportunities, study abroad, financial aid, and graduate studies for minority and international students.

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