Wildcat Writers program celebrates two decades of community building through a love of writing

Former Wildcat Writers undergraduate coordinator Rachael Shah and University of Arizona students

Former Wildcat Writers graduate coordinator Rachael Shah, front center, alongside current Wildcat Writers high school students. Shah, now an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, is credited with expanding Wildcat Writers' scope and impact.

Logan Burtch-Buus/University Communications

Desert View High School senior Kiara Abre'u used to be nervous when thinking about graduating from high school and going to college. That changed when she joined a Wildcat Writers partnership as part of her junior year English class.

A community-based education program in the University of Arizona Department of English's Writing Program, Wildcat Writers pairs university educators with local high school teachers and brings their classes together to work on writing projects.

A lifelong writer, Abre'u said she was excited to connect with other creative people who share a passion for the written word. More importantly, Abre'u said participating in Wildcat Writers alleviated the sense of intimidation surrounding college life.

"Once I got into Wildcat Writers, I realized that these college kids are just like me, and I don't have to be afraid of anything," she said. "Through this program, I have been able to gain more experience with the university, the area and the community. I have been able to talk to so many students from so many different places that are all together in this space, and I am able to feel confident in what I am doing."

Desert View High School senior Kiara Abre'u

Desert View High School senior Kiara Abre'u: "Once I got into Wildcat Writers, I realized that these college kids are just like me, and I don't have to be afraid of anything."

Logan Burtch-Buus/University Communications

Abre'u plans to attend UArizona in the fall to study aerospace engineering.

Wildcat Writers began in fall 2003 as a partnership between then-UArizona graduate teaching assistant Anna Varley and former Desert View High School teacher Liz Denbo. The duo's original goal was to provide a sense of community for students graduating high school, and to encourage civic engagement, collaboration and exploration of education issues through community-based writing projects such as letter writing or compiling literary journals.

Varley later worked with Anne-Marie Hall, former director of the Writing Program, to expand the partnership opportunity to other high school and college educators, and Wildcat Writers was officially born. Two decades after its inception, Wildcat Writers continues to unite UArizona educators and students with local high schools. Often, their partnerships are focused on local, themed writing projects.

"We hope to provide students and instructors with the opportunity to collaborate together on writing projects and learn from each other," said Kristin Little, Wildcat Writers director. "When I was a new university teacher, my first Wildcat Writers experience was so eye opening and rewarding, and I have learned a lot as a teacher from this program. I think it's so important for educators to be able to communicate and share ideas and see what's happening on all sides of our educational community."

Little joined Wildcat Writers during the 2009-10 academic year and is in her second year as program director. A native Tucsonan, Little said she saw Wildcat Writers as an opportunity to see what was happening in local high schools – what the students were learning and how the teachers were teaching – and help create a pathway for students to enter college.

The program celebrated its 20-year anniversary with a student showcase on April 22 on the UArizona campus. The event brought together past and present program participants to share their stories of community building and discuss work they completed in the program.

Writing for change

Hundreds, if not thousands, of high school students in Tucson have participated in Wildcat Writers, said former Wildcat Writers graduate coordinator Rachael Shah, and the program's influence has spread far beyond UArizona and Desert View.

Shah, who is now an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, is credited with expanding Wildcat Writers' scope and impact during her tenure with the program, most significantly by establishing the program's board of directors and developing mentorships between board members and the high school and college educators in the program.

After leaving UArizona, Shah established the University of Nebraska's Husker Writers, based on her experience with Wildcat Writers.

Other previous Wildcat Writers participants have gone on to create similar programs at other institutions, including the Parallel Learners Program at Sunnyside High School that pairs students with disabilities and students without disabilities; the Bobcat Writers program at Georgia College and State University; the SI Writes: New York writing development workshop sponsored by the New York Department of Education; and a new teacher partnership program at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Shah, who gave a keynote address at the Wildcat Writers 20-year celebration, said the program's ability to inspire groups across the nation is thanks to the passion of the educators and students who have participated in the program – and their love of writing.

"Writing is for change; it's not for five-paragraph essays, it's not for standardized tests," Shah said. "It's to do something. Sometimes, it changes our own perspectives or our relationships with others. Sometimes, it changes the world around us, and Wildcat Writers partnerships have often paid attention to the inequalities that structure the Tucson community and have worked to intervene in creative ways, through writing. We build community by recognizing that everyone has important knowledge to share. Knowledge doesn't just belong to one particular group, and when you honor the knowledge that everyone brings, that's when real communities are built."

Crafting partnerships

Wildcat Writers partnerships begin every fall when interested UArizona and high school instructors meet to discuss educational interests and goals for the coming semester. The program's board of directors then pairs educators together, and the duos spend the remainder of the fall fleshing out the details of their partnership.

Rachael Shah

Former Wildcat Writers graduate coordinator Rachael Shah

Logan Burtch-Buus/University Communications

Writing partnerships and activities begin in earnest in the spring, with high school and university classes working together on a shared project. The structure of each partnership is unique and dictated by the paired educators. While some partnerships may consist of students exchanging creative writing samples and hosting workshops, others may involve developing a podcast or hosting poetry slams or panel discussions on local issues.

Wildcat Writers graduate coordinator and UArizona English graduate student Charlie McMartin said the program's partnerships are successful for a variety of reasons. First, the program gives educators the space to develop their partnerships with a great deal of flexibility. The high school and university students then generally visit one another's campuses in addition to doing their written work. McMartin said these visits allow high school students to better understand university life, while university students can better understand what education looks like in Tucson.

McMartin said Wildcat Writers has a legacy of mentors that care about improving the lives of students, teachers and the community.

"Wildcat Writers is a group of really dedicated people who are concerned about their community," McMartin said. "People on the university side are learning how to better serve those communities. It's not just about getting high school students to university. It's about figuring out how the university can better serve its community."