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First-Generation College and Career Readiness: A Link to Visual Literacy Skill Development

First-Generation College and Career Readiness: A Link to Visual Literacy Skill Development

By: Le’Passion Darby, Instructional Designer for Tech & Tour.  

While there is materiality to campus artifacts, they interface with campus constituents in interpretative ways to produce multiple meanings, and these artifacts can be photographed for discussions of campus culture.

Dr. James Banning, Professor Emeritus, School of Education, Colorado State University

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Every spring, thousands of high school juniors and seniors make the trek to campuses across the nation to “prospect” hoping to find a campus culture that fits their interests, budget, and personal values. Sadly, for underrepresented students, what can initially appear to be an exciting academic opportunity, does not always work out the way the student or institution intended. Far away from home, and without the support of their community, students may find themselves the object of scrutiny or worse, on the receiving end of bias. They may feel like they do not fit in on a campus, and their grades and esteem can suffer. Many students tough it out to earn their degree, but others choose to transfer often losing valuable scholarship money or worse, they leave higher education altogether.

Hoping to break this cycle and other barriers faced by first-generation students, the Upward Bound Program at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) supports students in finding a campus that is right for them, and offers them a set of skill-building opportunities before they even set foot in a college classroom. The highly successful tradition was refashioned this past spring, to integrate digital technology through the Upward Bound Tech & Tour Program. The 10-week digital photography practicum trained three students to capture campus culture through a “college-bound lens” at Harris-Stowe State University, a Historically Black University (HBCU) located in St. Louis, Missouri. The Smithsonian Learning Lab served as virtual teaching partner, and as a platform to showcase the student-curated artifact collection that exemplifies the culture of HBCUs.

Harris-Stowe was one stop on Upward Bound’s annual spring break college tour. Knowing the time constraint to photograph a variety of campus artifacts, instructional designer for Tech & Tour, Le’Passion Darby, leveraged the University of Illinois campus as the training ground to develop students’ visual literacy skills, a foundational communication skill for the 21st-century learner before students embarked on their tour.

Before the tour, program participants underwent a rigorous pre-practicum that included eight weeks of hands-on learning and traditional and virtual lectures. Guest lecturers included faculty from UIUC Colleges of Media, Education, and History and academic professionals from the Office of Public Affairs, the university library, and the Archives Research Center. Students discovered the history behind some of Illinois’s most defining artifacts, and were trained to photograph from varying angles, research digital resources, handle fragile materials, and write metadata. Virtual guest speakers included Smithsonian Learning Lab Learning Programs Manager Tracie Spinale and campus ecology expert Dr. James Banning. Harris-Stowe Admission Counselor Leslie Parker, lectured students on HBCU culture and organized photographic opportunities for the practicum.

The students took the lead from there. Individually, they captured culture at Harris-Stowe through photographs of art, architecture, and signs. Collectively, they created an unprecedented narrative of Harris-Stowe that spans campus history through its present-day culture. The collection culminated in an interview with Harris-Stowe President Dwaun J. Warmack, during which he discussed his vision for the university and his appreciation of college readiness programs such as Upward Bound. Tech & Tour participants used the Learning Lab to curate and display the final collection.

Student curators for the Harris-Stowe State University collection are Upward Bound participants Alie W., Leavell A., and Tara H. The Upward Bound Program is administered through the Office of Minority Student Affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign under the leadership of Domonic Cobb, Associate Dean and Interim Director.

Le’Passion Darby hopes that other educators will use the collection to instruct college-bound students on Harris-Stowe State University, in particular, and campus artifacts in general. As a first-generation college graduate herself, she understands that students like those served by programs such as Upward Bound might not have the resources to visit college campuses in person. Collections such as the one created through Tech & Tour can be assembled using SLL features, allowing digital access to students of varying backgrounds and promoting equitable learning.

The Harris-Stowe State University collection itself can be used to train students to interpret campus artifacts at any institution. This visual literacy skill can support college-bound students in selecting supportive campus environments, thus advancing the overarching goal of Upward Bound and other college readiness programs. The Smithsonian Learning Lab holds digitized images of campus artifacts from a myriad of U.S. colleges and universities through which educators can frame discussions about campus culture and train students in the technical skills acquired through Upward Bound Tech & Tour.


Le’Passion Darby is the Instructional Designer for Tech & Tour. She served as a volunteer collections screener for the Learning Lab in 2017 and 2018. During summer 2018, Ms. Darby is a virtual intern with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture where she is designing Learning Lab collections for the museum. A first-generation college graduate, she begins her graduate studies in Learning Design & Leadership with an emphasis in Technology in Fall 2018 at UIUC.


Reference: Banning, J. (2018). Campus artifacts as diversity messages: A photographic approach. Arvada, CO: Terra Cotta Publishing.†l


blue academic robe

Image: Academic robe worn by Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole at Bennett College (detail).
An academic robe in blue and gold from Bennett College worn by Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole with custom designs by Barbara Nicholson. The robe is made from a blue synthetic fabric with the hem and the central front opening trimmed in a wide blue, gold, and black woven striped tape. There are three (3) stripes of a black, gold, and blue woven tape with a scrollwork design on each sleeve. Adinkra symbols are hand painted in gold at the center front neck, on each cuff, and four (4) around the bottom. Excerpts from poems by Maya Angelou are also hand painted in gold around the bottom of the robe. The robe closes at the center front with a metal zipper trimmed with a gold tassel at the top and bottom of the zipper. The cuffs close with blue Velcro. A cowrie shell is hand sewn at the upper seam of the proper left cuff above the gold painted symbol. Two (2) additional cowrie shells are hand sewn along the center back pleat of the robe. A blue twisted cord extends from the center back neck and loops around a blue plastic button to secure an academic hood to the robe.
National Museum of African American History and Culture