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Going for the Goal

Whether it’s acing an exam or breaking into the fashion industry, USC Dornsife students teach local middle schoolers how to accomplish what they set out to do.

Caitlin Smith, a psychology doctoral student in USC Dornsife, leads sixth grade students in their final workshop in the Going for the Goal program. With guidance from USC Dornsife students, the program teaches middle schoolers how to set themselves up to achieve their goals. Photo by Michelle Salzman.
Caitlin Smith, a psychology doctoral student in USC Dornsife, leads sixth grade students in their final workshop in the Going for the Goal program. With guidance from USC Dornsife students, the program teaches middle schoolers how to set themselves up to achieve their goals. Photo by Michelle Salzman.

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

“I’ve actually had this goal for a long time,” Emily 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 achieve her desired profession.

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

Nayley, Emily and their classmates are learning how to set themselves up to successfully achieve their goals. They are students at Saint Vincent School in Los Angeles and participants in Going for the Goal, a program teaching life skills to sixth and seventh graders run by USC Dornsife students.

“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 in 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.”


Sixth graders Emily Cervantes (left) and Nayely Gonzalez (middle) are working toward their personal goals of becoming a fashion designer and author, respectively, in Going for the Goal. Photo by Michelle Salzman.

Gatz has overseen the Going for the Goal program at USC 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 connected Gatz with the Los Angeles County school.

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 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 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.

During one Going for the Goal workshop, students build a goal " ladder." Each rung lists an action they can take toward achieving a goal. Photo courtesy of the USC Dornsife Department of Psychology.

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

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

Larissa Borofsky, a Ph.D. 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, Borofsky said.

Janis Yee, who participated in Going for the Goal for three years as an undergraduate biology major in USC Dornsife, noted the importance of making sure the goals are realistic and that students can see their progress. Yee believes her experience working with children will help her 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 2012. “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 achieving another goal: attending college.

To conclude the spring 2012 Going for the Goal workshop, the sixth grade class that Emily, Nayely and Lorenzo are in visited the University Park campus.

Lorenzo, who has visited the campus before with his mother, was happy to return to the university he said 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 USC Dornsife.