Rise Above: Alumnus works toward improving education system for underprivileged youth
Mark Vincent Yu always knew he wanted his life’s work to be with youth, but he didn’t start his higher education journey knowing exactly how that would come to be.
“I was initially an education major before I decided to double major in psychology and sociology,” he said. “I believe teaching is one of the most important careers. However, during my time at UOG, in addition to teaching, I became interested in working in youth-serving settings more generally.”
He is now nine months into a two-year postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of California, Irvine, evaluating how community educational outreach programs can boost the confidence of underprivileged youth in mathematics and STEM and impart a foundation for them to pursue a college education and career in those fields.
After graduating, Yu worked as an educational counselor under the Educational Talent Search TRIO program, which is offered by UOG as a college-preparatory program for low-income and first-generation college students on Guam. One year later, in 2012, Yu decided to leave Guam to pursue his next level of education.
He has since earned his master’s in counseling and mental health services from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013 and just last year, a doctorate in educational psychology and applied developmental science from the University of Virginia.
Now, as principal investigator of a postdoctoral fellowship program under the National Science Foundation, Yu and his research team of 10 undergraduate and graduate students are collecting data on and analyzing youth beliefs about mathematics and STEM fields. The goal of the research is to understand what makes students feel they are “good at math” and what motivates them to believe that math and STEM fields are important. Yu particularly wants to learn how to optimize the settings and relationships surrounding underprivileged youth to promote positive development.
The research program provides Yu with the ability to pursue his passion: changing the way the U.S. education system supports youth.
“I want to design and create effective and evidence-based interventions, programs, and settings that better support youth,” he said, “especially those at risk due to economic or sociocultural factors.”
Through his team’s initial surveys and observations, they have found that community educational outreach programs in math are beneficial for underprivileged youth, resulting in higher levels of engagement and increased perceived abilities in math. The next step, Yu said, is to find out how and why the outreach programs are effective by conducting additional surveys, observations, and interviews.
He plans to publish his research findings in academic journals and to present his findings at national and international conferences to help program coordinators better understand what motivates the youth they are helping and how to better design and implement their youth programs.
Yu attributes the impact he is now making in the world of psychology and sociology to the “limitless opportunities” made available to him as an undergraduate student at the University of Guam.
“As a psychology major, the opportunities I had at UOG seemed limitless,” Yu said. “Not only was I able to learn and practice counseling skills first-hand, I also had the opportunity to apply my learning and skills through supervised practicums at the Salvation Army Lighthouse Recovery Center and the Guam Department of Education.”
Yu was also heavily influenced by the Bali Field School component of his sociology coursework, saying the experience was one of the main highlights of his undergraduate career.
“[It] piqued my interest and passion for understanding the cultural foundations of community development,” he said.
He also credits his path through academia and into meaningful research to his professors at UOG, including Sociology Professor Kirk D. Johnson, Psychology Professor Seyda Turk Smith, Psychology Professor Kyle D. Smith, Psychology and Micronesian Studies Professor Iain K.B. Twaddle, Associate Professor of Sociology and Micronesian Studies Angeline L. Ames, and Dean of the School of Education Alicia Aguon.
“In addition to supporting my graduate school, scholarship, and fellowship applications over the years, they were invaluable sources of support during my time at UOG,” he said.
For college students looking for their next opportunities, Yu advises them to take advantage of all of the opportunities that UOG offers.
“Get to know and build meaningful relationships with your fellow students, professors, and administrators,” he said. “The experiences and connections you make now will be invaluable assets as you progress through your career.”
Yu hopes to return to Guam in the future to work toward his goals of designing programs and settings that better support Guam’s youth.