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Day at AU Brings DC Youth Closer to College

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What is college like? For many students in the urban middle schools of Washington, D.C., college is an unknown land. If your parents or siblings never went to college, and if your neighborhood is one where college isn’t the norm, it can be hard to picture what a campus is like, and even harder to prepare to get there.

Middle school students from underprivileged areas of the city can now envision themselves in college – because they’ve been here.
AU’s School of Education, Teaching and Health works with a local nonprofit to give students a first-hand experience of college life by bringing them to American University for the day.

The students tend to come from public charter schools in Wards Seven and Eight, where according to the nonprofit College and Career Connections, 67 percent of ninth graders won’t graduate from high school and only five percent will end up with college degrees.

These young people are working to change that dismal trend, and SETH is helping them do it. During their day at AU, they talk with professors and undergraduate volunteers, tour the campus, and work together in activities that help them understand what college is like and how they can reach their goals of a college education.

Over 200 students from five middle schools visited AU this year. It’s the third academic year for the program, which is often run in collaboration with College and Career Connections, a nonprofit that works to provide D.C. youth with early exposure to college and career planning. Visits have also been arranged by alumni teachers or at the direct request of schools.

Faculty from across the university participate in the day-long visits, telling the middle schoolers about ways to prepare for careers that may interest them – medicine, for instance, or teaching – and answering questions.

Having a concrete image of a college campus can make a key difference for students.

Of the eighth graders from Cesar Chavez Middle School who came to AU in May, 94 percent said afterwards that the experience made them feel more comfortable on a college campus, while 90 percent said the AU trip and interactions with undergraduates and professors made them more likely to go to college. A full 100 percent said that the time at AU helped them understand life on campus.

A trip to AU by students from SEED Public Charter School, filmed last fall for CNN, had similar results.

“The way the campus looks and feels -- all of that feedback -- is really critical to a student’s understanding of what college is going to be like,” Kara Stack, principal of the SEED School, said in a video on the College and Career Connections website.

Cesar Chavez, SEED, City Collegiate, Friendship Tech and Browne Educational Campus are among the schools that have participated.

“We had fun,” one student said afterwards, “and the people at AU showed me one college that I want to go to.”

“It was fun to be able to get out and see what it would feel like to be in college and where it can get you,” another student added.

Faculty who have spoken to visiting students include Lynne Arneson, Biology, CAS: Caleen Jennings, Performing Arts, CAS; Jane Hall, SOC; Michael Keynes, Mathematics, CAS; Marilyn Goldhammer, SETH; and Tom Husted, Economics, CAS.