Teacher Recruitment Scholarship: A program to combat Utah’s shortage of diverse teachers

Story by TESS ROUNDY

Sixteen years ago, a group of professors visited a student-wide assembly at Highland High School. Watching the audience, they admired the diverse group of students.

But the professors couldn’t ignore one section. A group of white individuals stood in contrast to the rest of the audience — the faculty.

This assembly put the professors face-to-face with the reality that ethnically diverse students in Utah are not represented by their educators. They knew something needed to be done to increase diverse representation in Utah K-12 schools.

This is where Dale Smith enters the picture. Smith is the associate dean of education, family, human studies, and social work at Salt Lake Community College. The professors agreed that SLCC would be the best place to start a program bringing diverse students to Utah’s teaching force. It’s Utah’s most diverse college, and as Smith explained in a Zoom interview, it’s less intimidating than the University of Utah high on a hill in Salt Lake City’s east side.

The Teacher Recruitment Scholarship for Diverse Students is a full-ride scholarship designed to bring ethnically diverse educators to Utah schools.

School districts in the Wasatch Front, SLCC and the U work in tandem to fund these future educators’ schooling. School districts identify those eligible for the scholarship, then these students spend two years at SLCC and the remaining two at the U. Working together, these institutions cover tuition and fees for a four-year education.

Pictured from left to right: Michelle Bachman, a West High School teacher, who helped start the program; Mary Burbank, the U’s program affiliate; Melissa Gutierrez, one of the first scholarship recipients to graduate from SLCC and the University of Utah; and Dale Smith. Photo courtesy of Dale Smith.

The Scholarship doesn’t only support students monetarily, but it also offers a support system of peers, professors and advisors who want to help recipients thrive.

And the program is doing well. Its graduation rate at SLCC is nearly 60% — over double that of the college’s graduation rate as a whole.

In fact, the program is doing so well that SLCC’s provost asked Smith to write a proposal to the state legislature that mimicked the scholarship plan. But instead of recruiting diverse teachers, it was meant to combat Utah’s teacher shortage in general. This is how the Teacher Education Initiative came about.

Smith said, “If you’re at Salt Lake Community College and going into education, we can usually help you out in some way.”

But the Teacher Recruitment Scholarship hasn’t always been a success.

“The first year was a disaster,” Smith said.

Many of the minority students who were eligible for the scholarship were getting recruited to four-year universities offering financial assistance. They didn’t see the benefit of attending a community college when they could go straight to a university.

School districts identifying students for the scholarship who weren’t ready for college courses was another early problem. Smith said this meant scholarship money was paying for low-level classes, and it took multiple semesters until some of these students could take education focused courses.

It wasn’t all disastrous at first though. From the beginning, Smith knew a support system was key to success in college, especially for diverse students. So, from the outset the program required a one-credit class that meets weekly. Its purpose is to check in with students to see how they’re doing academically. It also checks with students’ progress making friends.

Scholarship recipients graduating from SLCC in 2013. Photo courtesy of Dale Smith.

Mekenna Thomas, a scholarship recipient in her last semester at SLCC, said meeting other students is her favorite part of the program.

In a Zoom interview, Thomas said she’s never had a class that’s “all minorities.” Having this social network of future educators has been nice.

Thomas, who is Black, was adopted soon after she was born and grew up in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. As a child she loved elementary school. But, she said, she never had a teacher who was a person of color.

After elementary school, Thomas said, school wasn’t as great. In middle school kids called her “smackie blackie.” In high school, bullies called her the N-word. She thinks if she had a teacher of color, she would have felt safe and comfortable sharing these experiences with an adult.

This is one reason she wants to teach elementary school in Utah. Thomas didn’t have a Black role model in school, so she knows it will benefit her future students of color. “I think it’ll be great for them to see someone who is like them in a teaching position,” Thomas said.

Chantelle Zamora, a Latina scholarship recipient, is in her last semester at the U. Now, she’s student-teaching Spanish at her alma mater, West High School. After graduating this semester she’ll continue teaching Spanish with an English as a Second Language endorsement.

Chantelle Zamora has always wanted to work in education. Photo courtesy of Chantelle Zamora.

She always knew she wanted to be in education, but when she was younger, she dreamed of being a librarian.

In middle school she expressed this desire to a teacher, and, in front of the class, he laughed and told her she’d “end up like every other Latina,” pregnant and unwed at 15.

This humiliating experience didn’t deter Zamora. “I actually feel like it motivated me more,” she said. After this event, she wanted to prove that she would not fall into that stereotype, that she would “make it happen.”

While her lifelong dream was to become a librarian, she decided she wanted more access to students. This led her to teaching. Now, with teaching experience under her belt, she can’t imagine bringing a student down or making them feel like they can’t accomplish their dreams.

When Zamora was offered the Teacher Recruitment Scholarship, it wasn’t an obvious choice. She wanted to start at the U because she was afraid that by going to SLCC she’d be “cutting [her]self short.”

Now, less than a month from graduating, she’s happy with her decision. In fact, she said if it weren’t for the program, she doesn’t know if she’d have been able to finish college at all.

Associate Dean Smith said he knows some students may be hesitant to start their undergraduate studies at a community college. But he recommends SLCC. Between the scholarship and supportive faculty, students will get a personalized education that will begin preparing them to become teachers and mentors.