University Neighborhood Partners aims to widen access to education for west side residents

University Neighborhood Partners, located on the west side of Salt Lake City, partners with 25 organizations across the Salt Lake Valley to provide access to education and services for residents of that community.

Story and photo by LAURA SCHMITZ

When Sarah Munro began her dissertation at the University of Michigan, she saw a need to bring access to education to minority communities.

After conducting research in Italy and receiving her Ph.D. in anthropology in 2002, she now works as the associate director of University Neighborhood Partners to make that need a reality.

As part of the president’s office at the University of Utah, UNP is “a bridge between the U and nonprofits on the west side,” Munro said.

UNP was launched in 2002 and acts as that bridge by creating partnerships under three main “umbrellas” — youth and education, community leadership and capacity building.

Serving two ZIP codes and seven neighborhoods on the west side of Salt Lake City, UNP currently boasts about 34 partnerships with 25 organizations. Munro admitted that monitoring the success of UNP is difficult, given that much of its work is seen only by the success of its partners.

“We’re always the convener,” Munro said. “We don’t actually do the work — we bring in community organizers to do the work.”

Munro collaborates with UNP staff in choosing organizations with which to partner. She said she and the seven to 10 staff members then maintain partnerships through ample communication and a positive attitude.

“We’re in constant communication,” Munro said of UNP and its partners. “We sit in both worlds and anticipate needs and goals.”

UNP works by building relationships with organizations that work with underrepresented populations, including refugees and undocumented immigrants. Munro said language, transportation and childcare are major hurdles west-side residents face in accessing basic freedoms, including education and healthcare.

“Our policy is we help anyone who comes to the table,” Munro said. “We don’t choose who we help, the organizations do. We simply create the table.”

According to 2010 census data, about 13 percent of Salt Lake City residents are Hispanic — a 78 percent increase from 2000 census data. As demographics continue to change in the United States, Utah and the Salt Lake Valley, Munro said institutions of higher education must adapt to prepare future students for college by widening access.

“A long-term goal is to move students from the west side to succeed, completing high school and coming to the U,” Munro said. “In 20 years, if the U can’t be more effective at this, it will no longer be the flagship university in the state.”

Rosemarie Hunter, director of UNP, was inspired to join hands with UNP after her time as a social worker. She was involved in the U’s College of Social Work for 16 years.

Hunter said education allows individuals to make choices and decisions from a place of knowledge.

“Education is a shared value across all communities and families,” she said. “Education really is power — anytime you can get access to education, you can take better care of yourself and your family.”

Hunter said UNP’s goal is not to try to jump in and “fix” everything, but to create a “mutual shared space” of learning between members of the west-side community and the U, allowing the U to change to support a more diverse population.

“What we look to do is go into existing places to (allow west-side residents) to interface with university life while going about their daily life,” Hunter said. “The U is learning a lot from residents and their cultural backgrounds and life experiences.”

Another UNP staff member, Brizia Ceja, began working for the organization as a freshman at the U as a student intern.

Originally from Mexico, Ceja moved to the U.S. at 13. She then grew up on the west side and still has family living there. She said she is therefore able to relate to that community on a personal level.

“I’m able to identify with most families I work with,” Ceja said. “I come from an immigrant family. I am the first person in my family to go to college.”

Ceja now works as an academic consultant for UNP to facilitate partnerships with middle and high schools. She said schools on the west side are often crowded with one academic adviser serving many.

“We want to start working with them young to make sure they don’t slip through the cracks,” Ceja said. “We want to make sure students have a safe place with (academic) mentors.”

Ceja said she wants children on the west side to view college as not only a possibility, but a natural progression after high school.

“I want them to know (college) is an option,” Ceja said. “Just like high school follows middle school, college follows high school.”

UNP has established partnerships with two elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools on the west side of Salt Lake City. The organization continues to foster relationships with these students to help prepare hundreds for a collegiate experience.