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Goals within their grasp

Going for the Goal workshops feature a ladder that lists ways in which students can accomplish what they set out to do. (Photo/Courtesy of USC Dornsife)

Soft-spoken and shy, sixth graders Emily Cervantes and Nayely Gonzalez are best friends with a vision for their futures. Cervantes plans to be a fashion designer, Gonzalez an author.

“I’ve actually had this goal for a long time,” Cervantes said. To prepare, she practices drawing and regularly visits the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles to pick up brochures in anticipation of the steps she must take to be a part of her desired profession.

Similarly, Gonzalez writes short stories to hone her craft. “She’s really good at writing,” Lopez said.

The youngsters and their classmates are learning how to set themselves up to successfully achieve their goals as students at Saint Vincent School in Los Angeles and participants in Going for the Goal, a USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences program teaching life skills to sixth- and seventh-graders.

“The program is designed to teach middle school children how to set goals, how to break them down into manageable parts and assemble people around them to help them toward their goals,” said Margaret Gatz, professor of psychology, gerontology and preventive medicine, and chair of the Department of Psychology at USC Dornsife.

“They learn how to make good decisions and anticipate ways they can pick themselves up if they fall off-track. This is a difficult age where kids are just beginning to get old enough that they can think themselves into trouble so it’s the perfect time to intervene.”

Gatz has overseen the USC program since 1994. That year, a middle school in El Monte, Calif., contacted Going for the Goal creator Steven Danish, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., to help them implement the program. Danish, in turn, put Gatz in touch with school officials who were seeking a university partner in the area.

Initially, clinical psychology graduate students from USC Dornsife trained El Monte high school students how to teach the Going for the Goal curriculum. The high school students, in turn, would lead the program in their neighborhood middle school. Later, Going for the Goal was adopted by an undergraduate at USC Dornsife who formally established the program as a student organization at USC.

With Gatz as faculty adviser, the program has evolved into a tiered mentorship system that some undergraduates use to fulfill community service requirements for their degrees.

The undergraduate co-directors of the student organization oversee USC student recruitment and training, and they coordinate programming with the middle schools. Graduate students in the USC Dornsife Department of Psychology coach the undergraduate students by observing them in the middle school classrooms and providing feedback.

“The program’s curriculum is built on research, and we want the undergraduate leaders to understand this,” Gatz said. “It’s taking psychology learning principles and applying them in this intervention.”

After they are trained, the USC Dornsife undergraduates lead the Going for the Goal workshops one hour a week for 10 weeks in local middle schools. Saint Vincent School and the Foshay Learning Center currently participate in the program.

The middle school students start by identifying one goal they would like to accomplish during the program’s duration. The youngsters participate in the weekly workshops and make progress toward their goals. Some workshops include making a “goal ladder” — a list of specific ways to reach their goals — or identifying roadblocks toward achieving their target.

Lorenzo Soto, a sixth grader at Saint Vincent School, aimed at becoming a “homework superstar” in class. After participating in the program, he said he’s achieved his goal.

“I had to study, do my homework every day and always come to school,” Soto said. Ultimately, he plans to attend college to “get a great job and have a great life.”

Larissa Borofsky, a PhD student in clinical psychology and a Going for the Goal mentor, said the overwhelming majority of the program’s middle school students want to improve their grades.

Other goals include making the soccer team or getting a part in the school play, she said.

Janis Yee, who participated in Going for the Goal for three years as an undergraduate biology major at USC Dornsife, noted the importance of making sure the goals are realistic and that students can see their progress. Yee believes her work with children will help as she pursues her own goal of becoming a pediatrician.

“I loved interacting with the students, seeing them internalize what they learned and becoming really enthusiastic about it,” said Yee, who earned her bachelor’s degree in May. “I think that’s the greatest reward of teaching. Seeing your students light up when they get something.”

Manuel Fernandez, who teaches the sixth-grade class at Saint Vincent School, can see the positive effects of the program.

“I see the kids do a lot more than they used to,” Fernandez said. “When it comes to their classwork and homework, they’ll buckle down and realize what they have to do. They know it’s for their future.”

At the close of the program, the middle school students must write an essay about what they learned. They are also invited to the USC campus for lunch and a tour to help them visualize the achievement of another goal: attending college.

Cervantes, Gonzalez and Soto visited the University Park Campus at the end of their workshop in the spring.

Soto, who had visited the campus before with his mother, was happy to return to the university he hopes to one day attend.

Going for the Goal was a wonderful experience, he said.

“I learned that if you trust yourself in reaching your goal, you will always succeed.”

Learn more about Going for the Goal at



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