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Tacoma high school seniors get some straight talk from current students at local colleges

Shaima Shamdeen
Graduate Tacoma
Jai'shon Berry (with microphone) is the first in his family to go to college. He attends the University of Washington Tacoma and spoke to high school students about what has helped ease his transition to higher education.

 UPDATE, June 11: Clarifies identification of Tacoma Completes initiative.

School bus after school bus rolled up to Tacoma's Eastside Community Center on a recent Friday morning. High school seniors stepped out and were greeted by people cheering and waving pompoms — a welcome crew from the University of Washington Tacoma.

The high schoolers were there to participate in an event called What’s Next — a chance to meet students from other Tacoma high schools heading to local colleges in the fall and get a head start on connecting with college mentors and advisers. 

It’s coordinated in conjunction with a new initiative called Tacoma Completes, led by Degrees of Change and supported by the Tacoma College Support Network.

The aim is to help these students, who have just about reached the major milestone of graduating from high school, make the transition to higher education. The high school graduation rate in Tacoma has climbed in recent years, but that’s not the case for finishing college.

For the Tacoma Public Schools class of 2017, 49 percent of students enrolled in college within the year after graduation. And statistics show that a fair number of students have trouble persisting. For the class of 2012, just over half of first-year enrollees finished a post-secondary degree within six years.

But Degrees of Change, which administers the Act Six scholarship, has had success by creating cohorts of students at colleges so they can pair them with mentors and offer people they can lean on for support. The What’s Next event, which began last year with two colleges and has now expanded to include five, takes a page from that model.

“What we were finding was a lot of our students hadn’t met with each other prior to the orientations and getting on campus, so we felt the end of the school year was the perfect time to say, 'Hey, we hear there’s 100 kids from Tacoma schools going to Tacoma Community College. Do you know that?’” said Brandon Ervin, a counselor at Mount Tahoma High School who helped create the event. “Let’s get them all in the same room and talk about this process.”


The students are at that moment in life when they’re feeling a mix of emotions. They’re excited for the next step. Some of them want to move out and get their own apartment. But they’re also nervous. They don’t fully understand financial aid. They’re wondering if they’ll be able to keep up with college-level classes.

Maurine Njuguna, 19, goes to Wilson High School. She immigrated three years ago from Kenya and is heading to Tacoma Community College. From there, she’d like to transfer to Eastern or Western Washington University and pursue a career in medicine. She said she’s excited for more freedom after high school, but she also has some worries.

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
Maurine Njuguna, who immigrated from Kenya three years ago, attends Wilson High School and is heading to Tacoma Community College in the fall.

“When the classes are hard and you feel like you want to give up, that’s what I’m scared about,” she said.

Current students from the five colleges shared tips, offered encouragement and spoke candidly about their experiences. They attend University of Washington Tacoma, Tacoma Community College, Bates Technical College, University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran University.

Jai’shon Berry, who attends the University of Washington Tacoma, said he grew up in poverty and is the first in his family to go to college.

“Throughout my entire life, I’ve been told by people around me that I wouldn’t amount to anything, that I would never be anything and wasn’t smart enough,” he said.

“If they could see me now,” he told the high schoolers, who murmured “Yes!” and snapped their fingers.


Mushawn Knowles, a third-year student at the University of Puget Sound who uses the pronouns they/them, said they experienced culture shock at the predominantly white institution, which is so close to the much more diverse Hilltop neighborhood where they grew up.

“You start to begin to question your worth and question if you belong there,” Knowles said. “That becomes dehumanizing because you’re not actually addressed as a human. Sometimes you’re like someone who’s tokenized, but other times you’re a person who’s marginalized and discriminated against.”

Knowles told the high schoolers that they should remember that they deserve to be there as much as others and it's an opportunity to challenge themselves and push for change.

Knowles, for example, is now student body president at the University of Puget Sound.

Credit Shaima Shamdeen / Graduate Tacoma
Graduate Tacoma
Mushawn Knowles, second from left, is student body president at the University of Puget Sound.

Nalani Linder, director of Tacoma Completes, said candid discussion from current college students is what teens need when they're heading off to higher education.

Linder says this work means a lot to her because her own path to a degree took 12 years.

“I didn’t understand financial aid and didn’t know who to ask. There’s also choosing which classes, how to talk to professors, because that seems very intimidating to a lot of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds,” Linder said. “It was probably the cumulative effect of a lot of little things that had me drop out.”

Outside, a Tacoma Community College employee enlisted the future TCC students in an icebreaker game call the birthday train. They smiled shyly, introduced themselves and figured out how to line up by birthdate.

Of course, icebreaker games do not equal college. But Christian Aguiling, a senior at Lincoln High School, said he's grateful for this chance to have higher education demystified a bit.

“Events like these, I believe, are very beneficial to someone who wouldn’t really know how to start coming out of high school, coming into such a different environment,” Aguiling said. “It has similar rules, the concept is similar, but still can be very alien to someone who has no idea what they’re getting themselves into.”

The organizers hope that after this event, his future educational home — Tacoma Community College — will be a little less alien. They intend to expand the What’s Next event to more institutions in the future.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.