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Tools to Thrive

Kairos Learning simulates the college experience for low-income, first-generation students in an effort to give them a fair start.

Kairos LearningLong before recent graduates Sade Abraham, Ed.M.’18, and Diana Saintil, Ed.M.’18, arrived at HGSE, they wondered whether there was a way to change the outcomes for low-income, first-generation college-goers by giving them the tools to thrive in academia.

The statistics bothered them: College graduation rates linger at 14 percent for students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds compared to 60 percent for students from high-socioeconomic backgrounds. Also, many students from low-income backgrounds who make it to college drop out within the first six-to-eight weeks on campus.

As they soon discovered, those lower graduation rates could not be explained by lack of academic preparation, but rather by less obvious reasons like stereotype threat, financial stresses, or feelings of not belonging. “Education is seen as this great equalizer but there is also an opportunity gap in the process,” says Saintil, who graduated from the Education Policy and Management Program. College presents unique problems for low-income, first-generation students, she says, such as a lack of strategy for selecting the right programs or courses, an unfamiliarity with certain language and vocabulary, and different ways of dressing or presenting themselves.

“If education is one of the clearest paths to economic mobility, but language and other things are stopping access to this, then that dream of economic mobility is not actualized,” says Abraham, who studied mind, brain, and education. “Our goal is economic mobility for low-income, first-generation college students."

Saintil and Abraham’s efforts to bridge the gap led to the launch of Kairos Learning — a venture that aims to give low-income, first-generation college-goers real-life practice to help them acclimate to college life and graduate. Through a choose-your-own-ending simulation, Kairos provides immersive virtual reality experiences, complemented by a classroom curriculum that helps students develop the navigational capital — skills to maneuver through a social institution — needed to thrive in college and beyond.                                                                                     

"A lot of college programs essentially tell you to shed who you are to assimilate in this world. We don't want that to happen for students," Abraham says. "But you have to understand this world. This is what is needed for economic mobility. The idea of Kairos Learning is not to throw away who you are to get [to college] and get through this, but to understand and have the knowledge — the rulebook — to get through this place and be successful without losing yourself in the process."

Growing up as an immigrant from Trinidad living in Queens, New York, Abraham remained unaware of what she didn't have. After all, she was given the best her family could give her – having tested extremely well, she attended a prestigious high school and later received a scholarship to a state university as part of the Educational Opportunity program. "I had this great experience peppered with nuance. Growing up, I got all the resources that could be given to me at the time," Abraham says, crediting her parents' diligence in navigating the system.

It wasn't until much later – after earning a master's degree in higher education from Rutgers University, and then working halfway around the world in Abu Dhabi and Dubai as an assistant residential college director and academic adviser — that the disparities between her experience and that of others became truly apparent to her. When one of her students would casually use the terms “penultimate” or “Ad hominem” and she did not know what they meant, Abraham became aware of a gap in her experience and understanding.

"I had no idea what they were saying," she says. "What type of education did I receive that I didn't know these words? I thought I had a great education, I had excelled in my K–12 experience."

Though Abraham was in a position of power, she struggled to make sense of the immensely different social capital in the students she worked with. She began to zone in on the stark differences between affluent students, who left textbooks behind at the end of the semester instead of cashing them in or had maids to clean up after them, and lower income students, who, in one case, had never seen or used a microwave. She pondered the great differences between students, and how those much like herself could be shut out from economic mobility based on what they simply didn’t get.

Meanwhile back in the United States, Saintil was also questioning inequities among the Black and Brown students she taught at a middle school in New York. Similar to Abraham, Saintil's family emigrated from Haiti and ultimately settled in Immokalee, Florida, where they worked as orange and tomato pickers. Despite being poor, she says, they encouraged her to do well in school and go to college. A mentor in middle school helped her navigate potential inequities that could have impeded her, and also opened her eyes to opportunities that expanded her future. She went on to study economics at Spelman College and worked on Wall Street in finance before changing careers to become a teacher. 

Saintil and Abraham’s mutual interests collided at HGSE’s Admitted Students Day where they had a long conversation about academic language and privilege. Abraham calls meeting Saintil “divine intervention” – as the two immediately hit it off and connected over being first-generation college students from immigrant families.

By the time they officially arrived on campus in August, they already had laid the groundwork for Kairos Learning. Abraham says the nudge from Saintil, who entered Kairos in a pitch competition co-sponsored by MIT and Hewlett-Packard, which it later won, was just what they needed.

Throughout the year, they’ve continued to develop Kairos Learning as they gained further insight into the problems at hand through their HGSE studies. Currently, they are finalizing Kairos’ curriculum, which includes various modes of simulated experiences for first-generation college students from case studies to virtual reality. The idea is to provide a real experience of what it's like to be at a college and what might you encounter.

Ideally, the game would be embedded in a first-year experience class, which the majority of colleges and universities offer to freshmen. The two are in conversation with Harvard College, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and local community colleges here in Boston to begin testing the product in the Fall.  However, they would like to see Kairos used in high schools and colleges, ideally linked to on-campus resources that can help students.

Ultimately, Saintil says Kairos has the potential to alleviate some of the struggles this unique population of college-goers face that may drive them to leave a university, transfer, or give up entirely on higher education.

“It’s about trying to get this American dream. Oftentimes for first-generation students, you are not doing it just because it’s the thing to do, but you are doing it for your families and your community,” Saintil says, noting that for these students it’s about being the first one, getting that leg up, and being an example in your community. “So when you come into this space and drop out in the first few weeks, what does that mean for the community?”