Diva McPherson: Making higher education more accessible for more students and families

Administered through the Florida Department of Education, the College Reach-Out Program (CROP) was created in 1983 to increase the number of under-represented students in grades six through 12 who, upon high school graduation, are admitted to and successfully complete college. Several universities and colleges across the state host CROP programs, including the University of Florida.

Diva McPherson is the coordinator of UF’s CROP, which is part of the Center for Precollegiate Education and Training. Before joining UF, McPherson practiced law, providing legal advice to low-income people in the Eighth Judicial Circuit, and later taught at-risk students at the Horizon Center. In 2000, she was named Alachua County Teacher of the Year, and in 2004, she won the Ida B. Wells Award from the Gainesville Commission on the Status of Women—a year after her mother, Ruth Scott Brown, won the award.

McPherson co-leads CROP with Principal Investigator Michael Bowie of the UF College of Veterinary Medicine. UF at Work recently spoke with her about her work and her career-long advocacy on behalf of children and families.

Can you talk about your background and what led you to CROP?

My position is new, but I’ve been with the program for four years. I first got involved because it fell right in line with my past work experience with children and practicing law.

I studied law at UF beginning in the spring of 1975 and graduated in the spring of 1978 after taking off some time to have my second daughter, and then I practiced until 1996. Most of what I did was dependency and family law until I went to work with the Florida Department of Transportation on eminent domain. I thought after that, “Well, maybe I’ll go into private practice,” but then I signed up to substitute teach with the Alachua County School System. (I have a master’s in special education.) I was placed at the Horizon Center Alternative School and I loved it, so I stayed. Years passed and I retired from the school system, and then I got a call from UF to see if I wanted to come work on a couple of projects for CROP and I ended up staying.

Can you tell us about the program?

CROP is an innovative college prep program that’s focused on middle and high school students. Its goal is to increase the number of underrepresented students who finish high school and pursue post-secondary education. Students must qualify academically and economically for the program. Most students are economically disadvantaged and are potential first-generation college students, have low standardized test scores or GPAs, or a combination.

“Our goal is to make [college] an ordinary part of their life, so that [students] think, ‘Hey, this is nice. I can do this.'”

What does the program offer to students?

After-school tutoring is most of our focus during the school year. We help kids with homework matters and get them ready for standardized tests. We have opportunities for them to earn community service, which juniors and seniors need to graduate, and we provide prep for ACT and SAT testing. We also organize college tours. Earlier this spring, I took 16 kids on a four-day tour of Savannah, which included an open house for Savannah State University and a guided tour at Valdosta State University. Since Florida is a border state, students from Florida are eligible to receive in-state tuition at both institutions.

About how many students participate in CROP?

We currently have 96 students on our official state roster. Some kids start in middle school and they may or may not stay with us until they graduate high school, but we start working with them early. We have about six or seven paid tutors who are all UF students, and we also coordinate with Aces in Motion, a community-based program that uses tennis to promote character development, academic achievement and a healthy lifestyle. Our students practice tennis after school once a week, and the rest of the week is for academic tutoring.

What does the program focus on during the summer months?

During the summer, I run three camps. We have a two-week day camp for 10 to 15 middle school students. They get dropped off on campus each day at 7:30 a.m. We have breakfast together, and then we do STEM-focused academic activities. We have lunch together after that and then a more informal activity every afternoon.

The second camp is a middle school residential camp, during which students stay in residence halls for the week, eat in the dining halls and attend programs and events. The third camp is a residential camp for high school students, who also come to campus for the week. This year, we’ll have 10 of my local UF CROP kids and 13 kids from the Polk and Pasco County CROPs. During the week, they get to experience life on a college campus. They’re coming in contact with college students who serve as mentors and friends. Our goal is to make this an ordinary part of their life, so that they think, “Hey, this is nice. I can do this.”

How did you become interested in higher education, and what originally brought you to Gainesville?

Most of my family was in education. My father was a principal and so I grew up with people in the school system. I lived in Maryland/the D.C. area and got my bachelor’s at George Washington University. My husband and I moved to Gainesville in 1970 so he could get his master’s in agricultural economics. We were only supposed to be here for one year, and we’re still here!

We have two daughters and three granddaughters. My older daughter works at UF’s Career Connections Center, and my younger daughter is a graduate of the UF School of Veterinary Medicine and practices in Oviedo. My oldest granddaughter is a second-year student at UF.

What is the most satisfying part of your work?

Not just working with the individual children but getting to meet their siblings and parents. We get to have a continuing relationship so that we see their growth. The students grow into little adults; it’s exciting and rewarding to see them go through that.

I’m lucky that just about every job I’ve had has involved children or families. I’ve really been fortunate and blessed in getting to do the work that I love.

“I tell the kids that every moment, every single thing, is a learning opportunity. Their experiences add to their levels of achievement, so every encounter matters.”

What’s the most challenging part?

Trying to accommodate transportation issues is one of my hardest problems. Public transportation is often not able to get our kids back and forth. I try to plan activities where I can work around getting them there and getting them back home.

For example, a lot of our kids live in Hawthorne, and we have a van that goes to pick them up. I took 12 juniors and seniors on a Saturday to the University of Central Florida for a retreat, where they had presentations from people in various careers. They explained to the kids how they got where they are, why they love what they do and how our kids can do it, too. The kids were in awe; they were captivated by what these people had to offer. They were real, ordinary people telling them how they got to where they are. Logistically, I started picking kids up that morning at 6 a.m. Three met me in one place; four met me in another. Most parents do the best they can, but transportation is a problem.

Can you describe the students you work with?

Over the course of my career, I have worked with students at all grade levels and economic levels. I’ve worked with special education students, those with behavior problems or academic issues, gifted children. Kids are kids. Most want to do well; they want to be proud of themselves. They want to please teachers. They’re happy. They mostly all have a positive attitude, and the same goes for our CROP kids.

Every once in a while, I’ll see a former CROP or Horizon student at the mall, and they’ll tell me they’re about to graduate from college or have already graduated and have a job. And I always think, “Wow, they’re doing what it is that we wanted them to do.”

What would you like the UF community to know about CROP?

We always welcome the community’s interest and questions. Anyone can reach out to me at dmcpherson@coe.ufl.edu to see if a child qualifies or to get more information. We also always appreciate and are in need of volunteers, donations and access to facilities.

I tell the kids that every moment, every single thing, is a learning opportunity. Their experiences add to their levels of achievement, so every encounter matters.

McPherson is pictured above during an annual summer CROP activity: swimming with manatees at Crystal River.