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A Taste of College Life for Middle School Students

Story by
Nancy Joseph

When they arrived on campus, they were nervous. They traveled in groups, clutching schedules and campus maps. They complained about the long walk from one building to another. They giggled a lot.

Sound like college freshmen? Not quite. They were middle and high school students, visiting the UW through GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a national program designed to encourage low-income students to attend college. The College of Arts and Sciences is coordinating one of the University’s GEAR UP projects in Washington state, along with the governor’s office and the Higher Education Coordinating Board.

GEAR UP students received T-shirts with a message.

GEAR UP students received T-shirts with a message.

Students from Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Elma, Inchelium, Lakewood, Renton, Pasco, Tacoma, Spokane, Wapato, and Yakima traveled to Seattle for the one-week institute in August, staying in dorms and attending courses designed to introduce them to a college atmosphere. Tours of other colleges and universities in the area were offered and a college fair was presented. Students also participated in job shadowing, spending a morning with a member of the University or local community to learn about his or her work. A&S Dean David Hodge and UW President Richard McCormick were among those who invited participants to experience their work for a few hours.

“Our goal is to open up a whole new world to these students,” says Carla Dietsch, GEAR UP operations manager. “There are a lot of reasons these kids don’t usually go to college, but a main one is they don’t have a dream; they don’t have a concept of themselves pursuing a goal through college. Our job is to help them get that dream.” GEAR UP will follow this cohort of students for five years to assess the impact of early intervention and mentoring.

Figures from the National Center for Education Statistics demonstrate the need for programs like GEAR UP. Nationally, just 47 percent of low-income high school students enroll in college or a trade school, compared with 82 percent from high-income families. Of those who are qualified for college, 22 percent from low-income families do not pursue higher education as compared with 4 percent from high-income families.

“What’s innovative about this program is that it isn’t just a one-day, quickie tour,” says Susan Jeffords, A&S divisional dean for the social sciences. “There’s a lot of research that shows that one of the best ways to get kids to feel they are able to go to college is to get them on campus for an extended period, so they get the feeling that they can fit in there.”

The message came through to Ty Taylor, a seventh grader from McLaughlin Middle School in Pasco. “I feel like a college student now,” he said toward the end of his week on campus. “I feel like I’m older. Tyler came “to see what college was about and if it had the courses I wanted to study” and left feeling optimistic. “I didn’t know the UW had such good acting and art classes,” he says. “I’m really interested in the arts. I’m glad I came.”

GEAR UP mentor Kristy Becker (left) talks with middle school students about the day's events.

GEAR UP mentor Kristy Becker (left) talks with middle school students about the day's events.

That’s great news to Kristy Becker, a recent UW graduate who served as a mentor to Taylor and other GEAR UP participants on campus. “At first it was hard for them,” she admits. “For some kids it was their first time away from home. But by the end of the week they wanted to stay longer.”

Becker and 14 other mentors—most of whom are UW undergraduates—fielded some interesting questions from the youngsters during the week, ranging from the cost of college to the realities of dorm life. “They also wanted to know if there’s really that much walking in college,” recalls Becker with a laugh. “They couldn’t believe how much walking we did. And they wanted to know whether I had fun in college. Fortunately, I was able to tell them that I did.”

Mentors will stay in touch with GEAR UP students throughout the year. Becker looks forward to seeing the impact of the program but realizes it may be a few years before results are evident.

“I don’t think there will be an impact right away—college is five or six years away for most of these students,” she says. “But when they’re in tenth or eleventh grade and thinking about college, they’ll remember their experience at the UW and it will definitely shape their decisions. My hope is that their time on campus this summer just plants that little seed, letting them know that college is a possibility.