From the STEAM academic enrichment nonprofit Project Think to Pitzer’s Community Engagement Center, this alumna has helped found local, innovative education programming
Claremont, Calif. (April 24, 2023)—As Pitzer alumna Susan Warren ’78 stands on the campus she knew as a first-generation college student, she laughs joyfully at the sea of red T-shirts and children squealing and romping around the grassy mounds. Such a scene has played out many times since Warren founded Project Think 40 years ago.
Back then, Warren was teaching elementary students in the Cucamonga school district, where many children came from Latinx families of grape pickers. When the district stopped offering summer school due to a lack of funds, families had few affordable options for their children. Warren and her teaching colleague filled that gap with Project Think.
“Our goal was for kids to get engaged in learning, become passionate about research, and delve into whatever topic they chose,” said Warren.
Today, Project Think is a TK-8th grade summer STEAM program with immersive curriculum in literacy, math, science, technology, and the arts. Whether the kids are strutting across a stage or mixing chemicals that bubble and change colors, they are discovering the wonders of learning. Alongside volunteers, expert teachers lead the program for about 250 students during each 3-week session.
“It’s a community learning experience for the kids, the teen volunteers, the young adults, and the teachers,” said Warren. “Instructors get to teach for the sake of learning and being creative, not following a set curriculum.”
In 1980, Warren and her co-teacher started with just 15 students and a need for a space. Warren reached out to Pitzer’s then-Vice President of Advancement James B. Jamieson. Jamieson said that she could host Project Think on campus if she took over another summer program at Pitzer. Project Think has been a part of the Claremont Colleges ever since.
“We are not a remedial program or summer camp but an academic enrichment program,” said Warren. “We offer the curriculum and skill development that kids don’t get even in the best public and private schools. There isn’t time for things like Makerspace [physics and engineering], art, drama, or hands-on science like we have.”
Warren has thought outside the educational box since she was a student herself. A double major at Pitzer, she was one of the first organizational studies majors and received honors in psychology for her psycholinguistics research in Rome. The latter happened when Warren extended her semester abroad to research simultaneous language acquisition. She did so in collaboration with a Pitzer professor and a graduate student in the U.S.
“I’m thankful to Pitzer for being flexible,” said Warren. “Instead of making students fit into an established program, they help you design something based on your interests so you can make a difference. That fueled my interest in research and my career in higher ed.”
In 2001, Warren earned her PhD in Urban Leadership from Claremont Graduate University’s (CGU) school of education to strengthen her understanding of education justice and equity. She later developed Social Justice MA programs in Education and taught MA and PhD courses for 17 years at CGU and Azusa Pacific University. Much of her research is about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and she recently co-edited the book Building Culturally Responsive Partnerships Among Schools, Families, and Communities.
Warren also helped Pitzer break new ground as a fellow for the California Center for Community and Social Interaction (CCCSI), today known as the Community Engagement Center. Warren aided CCCSI in starting many community programs including Jumpstart, the International Social Studies K-12 Curriculum Project, and literacy instruction at Camp Afflerbaugh detention center. Warren also taught students about community-based research.
“We did trainings on how to do work that’s sensitive to the community,” said Warren. “We’re not going in to fix a community, we’re going in to help identify their strengths.”
Warren has carried this asset-based approach throughout her career. Now that she has retired as a professor, she is devoting herself to Project Think and enhancing the strengths of the teachers, volunteers, and students while at Pitzer’s campus this summer.
“All the values that Pitzer stands for, Provida Futuri [Mindful of the Future], that’s why I do this,” said Warren. “I want to give the students—and the community—the opportunity to be stimulated in their capacities to make a difference in their future and our future.”
To keep herself busy until Project Think begins, Warren has been involved in the planning of Pitzer’s Alumni Weekend as a reunion committee member.
“It’s exciting to hear from the different generations of Pitzer students,” she said. “It’s important for my class and those before us to not dominate the reunion. We have the younger alums sharing what’s meaningful for them, too!”
Warren looks forward to reuniting with her classmates for the first in-person Alumni Weekend in several years. If you’re a fellow alum, you can join the fun and look at the Alumni Weekend schedule here.