Biology teacher Isaac Strong helps low-income students prepare for the rigors of college applications and college life
Dr. Isaac Strong, a biology teacher at SI, knows something about working with low-income students. After all, he once was one himself.
Strong grew up on a small goat farm in Canby, Ore., and was the first in his family to attend college. “I had no idea what I was doing when I applied for college or for financial aid,” he noted. “No one told me that I could study for the SAT before taking the test.”
A third-year biology teacher at SI, Strong also volunteers at the local chapter of a national non-profit called Minds Matter, which prepares low-income students to take the SATs and ACTs, work on personal statements and prepare for college.
As head of programs for Minds Matter San Francisco (MMSF), Strong works with a host of other SI faculty, staff and alumni who also volunteer with the organization, including religious studies teacher Lisa Traum, who leads the mentoring program for sophomores at Minds Matter. Luci Moreno ’12, a former Alumni Volunteer Corps member at SI, also works with sophomores, and Katy Marconi ’10, a Learning Center coordinator at SI, is MMSF’s graphic designer. In addition, Maricel Hernandez, SI math teacher and interim co-director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion, presented a workshop for MMSF volunteers.
It’s the students, however, who keep Strong committed to the organization. He tells the story of an immigrant from China who came to the U.S. with poor English language skills. “His math scores were high, but he needed help with public speaking,” said Strong. “During two summer programs, he figured out what he wanted to do for a living and faced his fear of public speaking. Now he is attending Harvard on an almost full-ride scholarship.”
Strong also works with one girl who immigrated to the U.S. with her family from Latin America. “Her two mentors worked with her to improve her English and help her be less shy. She applied herself to her test-prep classes, and her scores grew better and better. She then spent a summer at Yale, even though she was afraid to leave her family for so long. She traveled to the East Coast by herself and grew so much. She returned much more confident and is now applying to college and engaging with her Minds Matter classmates.”
As its head of programs, Strong’s job is to ensure the smooth operation of MMSF sessions that run every Saturday for four hours during the school year. Students spend half their time with instructors and the other half with mentors who help them discover their own strengths and challenges and figure out strategies to overcome them. “We help them understand themselves better and give them the resources they otherwise wouldn’t have.”
MMSF hopes to narrow the “achievement gap of low-income students and their high-income counterparts,” said Strong, who joined the program in 2012. “Most of the students will be the first in their families to attend college.”
The group raises money through several events, including their Spring Gala, an event that takes place each year at San Francisco City Hall.
That setting is a far cry from Strong’s home in Oregon where he spent his days inoculating and caring for the goats that his family sold to dairies specializing in goat cheese. “I loved being outside, where I learned about science firsthand. When I studied genetics in high school and in college, I understood it immediately, thanks to our farm’s breeding program.”
At Gonzaga, Strong was a biology/pre-med major and landed a job doing independent research. He loved “asking questions that no one had asked before and finding answers that were new.” That led him to apply for a doctoral program at UCSF in cellular biology, and he was awarded his doctoral degree in 2015. By then, however, he decided not to work in research or in medicine. Strong was an adjunct faculty member at USF while working on his doctoral degree, and that teaching experience changed the course of his career.
“Early on in grad school, I discovered that I wanted to teach. Being on a bench all day isn’t as much fun as working with students and getting them to think about science in different ways. Students at USF wanted to rely on memorizing facts, but that’s only one step of the process. Science is about recognizing facts as tools that you use to solve a puzzle. It’s frustrating to see how hard it is to retrain college students to think differently. Here I can train students to think about science in a new way early on. It’s also what I love about Minds Matter.”
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