Long-running program focuses on tools needed by aspiring and new college students

By Susan L. Wampler

Breyen Taboada has wanted to attend USC since he was 7 years old, but for years he was concerned that his dream might remain out of reach. Then he enrolled in SummerTIME at USC Rossier, where he gained not only critical writing and research skills but also tools to help him apply to and afford college.

“The instructors in the SummerTIME program were really good,” said Breyen, now a senior at John C. Fremont High School in South Los Angeles. “I really enjoyed preparing for the speech we had to give in class. We also learned about FAFSA [the Free Application for Federal Student Aid], which helps you pay for college. For someone like me, who comes from a low-income family and will be a first-generation college student, it gave me hope.”

Now in its 15th year, SummerTIME — short for tools, information, motivation and education — has helped hundreds of aspiring college applicants from low-income backgrounds by teaching intensive research and writing skills, as well as “college knowledge” aimed at easing their transition to university learning and living. The program is part of the Pullias Center for Higher Education’s Increasing Access via Mentoring (I AM) initiative at USC Rossier.

“The majority of the students are the first in their families to attend college,” said Michelle Cadena, outreach senior program specialist at the Pullias Center and the SummerTIME program director.

While many of their peers were enjoying time off from school, the 69 students taking part in the most recent SummerTIME program were working harder than ever academically. Each weekday for a month, they traveled to the University Park Campus for three hours of writing instruction emphasizing the thesis building, research, writing and editing skills essential for producing an effective college-level paper. They also gained access to more intensive and personalized instruction than is usually available within public school systems.

“The lack of public funding creates gigantic classes in freshmen year at our public universities,” said University Professor William G. Tierney, Pullias Center co-director and the Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education who created and heads SummerTIME. This overcrowding is just one of the factors putting the futures of underserved Los Angeles students at risk when they head off to university.

“A lot of the problem also is that students don’t know how to study,” said Tierney.

“The intensity of the writing component is what really differentiates SummerTIME from other college access programs.”

—Stefani Relles PhD ’13


“Learning how to do scholarly research in the library — versus the Google searches they’re used to doing for papers in high school — was revolutionary to them,” said Chris Tsichlis MAT ’13, a USC Rossier alumnus who taught the writing class Breyen and 13 other rising high school seniors took over the summer. “This program changed the way they approach working on a paper.”

“This was the first paper I’ve had to write that was not just on Internet-based research,” Breyen said.

Oscar Muñoz, now a freshman at UC San Diego, agrees. “The program definitely helped prepare me for college by improving my writing,” he said. “I’ve never written so many drafts before.”

“The intensity of the writing component is what really differentiates SummerTIME from other college access programs,” said Stefani Relles PhD ’13, an assistant professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who spent her sixth summer working with the program. This year, she is conducting an evaluation of SummerTIME.

Marshall High School senior Shariqa Hossain would certainly give Relles a positive assessment. “The teachers were really helpful,” she said. “I didn’t know how to use the library and online databases before.” As part of the program, all students must complete a full research paper and presentation on a social issue they’re passionate about. Hossain wrote about gender equality in the Middle East.

Alex Montenegro, a fellow Marshall High School senior, addressed racial profiling. He appreciated learning how to verify the credibility of sources and how to reference them.


In addition to three hours of writing every day, the students also took daily college knowledge courses on time management and other self-reliance skills, and received guidance on how to navigate the application and financial-aid processes. For SummerTIME students, this information can be as crucial as how to write well. They also had the opportunity to hear about college firsthand from panels of current and recent college graduates.

Such college knowledge is often passed down from parents or siblings who attended college, said Tierney, and thus remains a mystery for first-generation college students.

Nor can these students necessarily rely on guidance counselors who have traditionally helped ease the transition to higher education. “Public schools in Los Angeles and throughout the state don’t have enough college counselors,” Tierney said.

“Students need advice,” he said. “They need encouragement.”

Montenegro, who plans to study psychology, feels that the program provides ample supplies of both. “I appreciated learning how to apply for college and financial aid, and how many resources are available to pay for and get to college,” he said.

Breyen Taboada is one of 69 high school students and college freshmen to have participated in the 2016 SummerTIME program.

Breyen Taboada is one of 69 high school students and college freshmen to have participated in the 2016 SummerTIME program. Photo by Margaret Molloy.


With six dedicated writing teachers and several academic advisers, the program provides another advantage not found in underfunded high schools: intimate class sizes of approximately 12 to 14 students each.

“The research is pretty definitive that smaller class sizes improve learning,” Relles noted.

Iona Cano, who completed her second year as a SummerTIME writing instructor, agrees. “The small groups allowed me to take a more individualized approach,” she said.

Cano’s group included students from the Kayne Scholars program who had just completed their freshman year in college. The Kayne Foundation recently selected USC Rossier’s SummerTIME program as one of just three partners to help fulfill its mission of fostering success throughout college and in launching careers.

A freshman-level composition instructor at Pasadena City College during the academic year, Cano provided real-world context to convey lessons aimed at improving her Summer- TIME students’ writing.


In addition to helping each student identify his or her writing strengths and areas where growth was needed, Cano worked with her group on the biggest challenges they faced during their freshman year of college — which ranged from homesickness to feelings of cultural alienation.

“Most of these students went to high schools with lots of students of color,” she added. “Then at UC and CSU, they really felt like minorities. They had to learn how to find their stride.”

In Tsichlis’ SummerTIME class, discussions similarly extended beyond writing instruction. As both a Trojan and an Ivy Leaguer, he was happy to informally contribute to his students’ college knowledge. He answered questions about life at Boston College, where he received his undergraduate degree, and Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree in history, as well as the summer he spent at Oxford and Cambridge. In doing so, he further demystified what the students may once have thought as exotic settings beyond their reach, making them sound real and accessible.

“You’ll fail at something,” he said. “That’s OK. Everyone does. Just stick with it.” Offering further reassurance, he added, “You should know that your papers are better than many I have read from graduate students.”


In previous years, the SummerTIME program focused on high school seniors about to head off to college. This year, the program not only expanded to include rising college sophomores, but it also added high school juniors who are entering their senior year.
Michelle Huerta, currently a senior at Fremont High School, said she appreciated how demanding the program was.

“Even though there were no grades, we were challenged to learn and grow,” she said. “And the teachers were awesome. They were very accessible and helpful. You could speak with them one on one. In addition to teaching us a lot about how to do research, the program also helped us with how to find the right college as well as information on the application and financial aid process.”

Reaching these younger students is important, Tierney said, because in preparing for college, “you need to think so far in advance.”

In terms of his own advance planning, Tierney hopes to raise enough money to add mathematics to the SummerTIME curriculum, calling it the other key cognitive variable, besides reading and writing, in proper preparation for college success.

Such plans illustrate an important factor in SummerTIME’s success: the program continues evolving based on the evaluations of Relles and other experts. Unlike many other college-preparatory programs aimed at underserved youth, SummerTIME’s location at a school of education means the program’s pedagogy is continually being refined based on feedback and outcomes to ensure its continued effectiveness. For example, students are tested both before and after the program to measure their progress. According to Tierney, the tests show that four weeks in SummerTIME can improve students’ writing abilities by about one grade level.

But the true benchmark for the program’s success, he explains, is getting students through freshman year of college, which exponentially increases their odds of graduating. More than 90 percent of SummerTIME graduates made it through their first year, Tierney noted.

Over the years, SummerTIME participants have gained acceptance at institutions ranging from the California State University system to Dartmouth and Harvard — as well as Breyen Taboada’s first choice, USC, where he plans to study business administration or marketing. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity to participate in SummerTIME,” he said.

This article appeared in the fall/winter 2016 issue of USC Rossier Magazine.

*Thank you to all of our donors who generously supported USC Rossier during fiscal year 2016 (July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016).

View the Honor Roll