For Jusna Perrin ’11, the choice to attend UMass Amherst was clear when visited campus as a high school student. “My brother went to the University of Connecticut, and he encouraged me to stay in-state and use the scholarship money I was awarded through the John & Abigail Adams Scholarship. Then I met [faculty member] Katherine Mallory, who told me about the social thought and political economy (STPEC) major and how it was a great stepping-stone for my post-undergraduate plans…because of that that along with the fact that I could be a student in Commonwealth Honors College, UMass became the obvious choice,” she recalled.
Hailing from the small town of Ashland, Massachusetts, Perrin aspired to attend law school and become a civil rights attorney. As a first-year student at such a large university, it was hard to find community even with organizations like the Committee for the Collegiate Education of Black and Other Minority Students (CEEBMS). For Perrin it wasn’t enough. She co-founded the group Freshmen Achieving More for Undergraduate Success (FAMUS), which brought together students of color at UMass Amherst to support each other academically and socially. “The peer-to-peer mentoring model was quite powerful,” said Perrin. FAMUS is still thriving on campus.
Faculty and advisors in the STPEC department stressed the importance of putting classroom learning into practice. During the summer before her senior year Perrin interned with Washington, DC, public schools. It was a pivotal three months for her. She came back to UMass and reflected on her summer experiences. “Comparing an organization’s mission to what it actually does proved to be a valuable learning experience. This [exercise] challenged me to think differently about the interplay between mission and action. After evaluating my summer internship, and finding it to be mission-driven in words more than practice, my top post-graduation priority was to find an organization that actually aligned mission and action.”
After graduation in 2011, Perrin joined the staff at the Washington, DC non-profit organization Reach Incorporated which operates an after-school program that recruits, hires, and trains high school students to be reading tutors to elementary school students who are reading below grade level. As the organization’s first hire, she has worked closely with the executive director and credits him with molding her approaches to working with kids. Perrin is now serving as an instructional coach and culture-builder while directing Reach’s six-week summer program which offers high school tutors the opportunity to build academic skills, prepare for post-secondary opportunities, sharpen professional skills, and give back to their communities through philanthropy.
Perrin has spent several years compiling and analyzing data on outcomes for Reach’s programs. Not only has the data been beneficial for the organization to receive grant funding, but it has also provided the information to evaluate the effectiveness of its programming and to make adjustments. The numbers are impressive: Reach’s data show that high school students who spend one year in the tutoring program average two years in reading growth. Elementary school students average 1.5 grade levels of growth, which is equivalent to what would be experienced in the classroom of a highly effective teacher in DC. Seventy-five percent of the students who continue with the program are reading on grade level by 11th grade, though they often enter the program four to five grade levels behind. Reach’s high school tutors boast a high school graduation rate of 90%, a notable achievement in a school district with an average 30 points lower. Perrin is proud that Reach is “for, about, and facilitated by our kids,” and mirrors the peer-driven model of FAMUS, which she said, “harnesses the power of relationships.”
An unwritten part of her job is to communicate to everyone she meets that they have a role in improving education for America’s children. “Education is a highly politicized system and politicians are making decisions that directly affect students’ futures,” Perrin said. “I want to make sure everyone knows that they have a role in these decisions too, and that it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves about what decisions are being made and why in order to advocate for future generations. There is no ‘silver bullet’ solution when it comes to education. Organizations like Reach can’t do it all. We need everyone working together in order to create equity in this system.”
Perrin credits her honors work in STPEC for providing her with the critical thinking skills and awareness to tackle one of the nation’s most pressing issues and recognizes her community of advisors, peers, and kids for inspiring her to continue in this work. She has a piece of advice for prospective and first-year students: “Culture is everything. UMass is a large campus, so it’s important to find your community on campus. If it doesn’t exist, create it.”