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UH Ph.D. Student Wins Innovation Prize for Improving College Access

Victoria DoanPh.D. student Victoria Doan founded a non profit that helps high school seniors discover careers obtainable with less than a four-year degree.

Posted April 16, 2018 – As a counselor at a southwest Houston high school, Victoria Doan noticed a shocking trend among the graduating seniors: Of those who had committed to attend a community college, nearly 70 percent dropped out before starting.

Intrigued and troubled, Doan got to work. She partnered with Victoria Chen, another counselor at Sharpstown High School, and founded a nonprofit called BridgeYear to help students from underserved communities find success after high school. The program focuses on the connection between higher education and careers that require less than a bachelor’s degree and provides guidance to keep students from feeling lost.

In addition to running a nonprofit, Doan is a research assistant and full-time student in the higher education Ph.D. program at the University of Houston College of Education.

Although BridgeYear is not yet 2 years old, it won the 2017 Thorne Prize for Social Innovation in Health or Education from Yale University, where Chen earned an M.B.A. The award honors a student-led venture and comes with a $25,000 cash prize.

“I remember the feeling transitioning from high school to college with everyone asking what you’re going to major in and I had no idea,” Doan said. “I would say something just to appease them and I thought I could keep saying something until I believed it, but I don’t think I ever really believed it. That fear is pretty universal.”

Victoria Doan with a studentDoan (left) works with a high school student during a job fair that allows for test driving careers.

Doan, who has a bachelor’s in mathematical economic analysis and statistics from Rice University, has since delved into the research on “summer melt,” the troubling trend of high school graduates never making it to college.

“This is a national phenomenon,” she said. “Forty percent of low-income, community college-attending students drop out. I thought it was an isolated event at my school, but I quickly realized that it’s larger than that.”

BridgeYear serves as an on-ramp for recent high school graduates, helping them discover careers obtainable with less than a four-year degree and connecting them to training at community colleges and other vocational programs.

To start, the organization holds a “Career Test Drive Fair.” Students put on the appropriate uniform and experience various jobs in a mock setting, all from their high school gym. For a half hour, they are no longer students but pharmacy technicians, electricians and web developers.

After test-driving careers, the students discuss which ones they liked, which ones they didn’t and why. BridgeYear staff then provide tangible pathways for the students to pursue their career of choice. Each of the careers showcased has a local, affordable training program through a college or trade school.

The nonprofit recently has drawn support from local foundations and companies such as the Marvy Finger Family Foundation, Baxter Trust, Project 88 and JPMorgan Chase.

Doan, slated to graduate with her Ph.D. from the UH College of Education in 2019, said schoolwork remains her first priority. Associate Professor Lyle McKinney, who serves as director of the higher education Ph.D. program, praised her commitment.

“What stands out about Victoria is just how passionate she is, that she truly believes she knows how to change the college access process in ways that will really help more students enroll and be successful,” McKinney said. “She could be using her talents and efforts in a lot of other ways and spaces, but she’s using it to the betterment of others and providing such a useful public service.”

–By Claire Andersen