Planting the seeds to close the college opportunity gap
CLEMSON — Traditionally, students start thinking about going to college when they are in high school, but in a state that has been struggling with poorly performing and underfunded school districts for years, it’s vital to get children excited about college from a much younger age.
So Clemson University’s new Office for College Preparation and Outreach recently hosted 110 fourth-graders from Greenville’s Legacy Early College Charter School to capture their imaginations and open their minds to the joys of going to college.
“What we’re trying to do is normalize being on a college campus,” said Amber Lange, executive director of the Office for College Preparation and Outreach. “Sometimes we take excitement for Clemson for granted. We think everybody in South Carolina would love to come here. Well, if they’ve never been here maybe they don’t. Maybe they think they can’t get in.”
The children’s visit was a collaboration with Clemson’s Emerging Scholars, Tiger Alliance and Call Me MISTER programs as part of a long-term initiative to get elementary, middle and high school children in South Carolina excited about the prospects of higher education.
Associate director of Tiger Alliance Matthew Kirk extolled the benefits of children actually setting their feet on the green grass of a college campus. It can take away misgivings and open up a whole world of possibilities.
“College starts with a thought,” he said. “If kids have never seen a college campus, how can they aspire to be on one? During this event they get the feeling of what it’s like to be on a campus; sit in a classroom, be in a dorm, go to the cafeteria. It starts this little seed of: ‘This is where I want to go!’ When they go back to school and teachers say to them, ‘Do you want to go to college?’ They have an experience to connect to that sentence and that feeds and waters that thought.”
At the event welcoming the children to campus, Kirk opened the floor for them to ask questions of the student volunteers. Some were eye-opening:
“What are you going to be when you graduate?”
“Did your parents want you to be something you didn’t want to be?”
“How did it feel to be here for the first time?”
“Can you still see your friends from home?”
“What if you wear something that says USC? Will they do something to you?”
Bright smiles and energy were abundant as the volunteers led groups of the kids around campus. Every stately building and tree-lined path elicited excitement, and squeals of joy bounced across the stands of Memorial Stadium.
“I want to go to this university!” screamed one little boy who literally bounced up and down looking through the gate at Howard’s Rock. “It’s got sports, it’s got science… it’s got everything!”
Clemson sophomore Alfonso Richard posed a doozy of a question to his class right off the bat: “Do you think teachers should have guns in schools?” The discussion that followed was passionate and respectful, as Richard called on nearly every child to voice their thoughts. Every pair of eyes was focused and engaged the entire time. There was not one yawn or disinterested glance.
Eating lunch in the modern buffet-style cafeteria at CORE Campus was another big hit before the kids boarded the bus and headed back to Greenville, minds buzzing from their day at Clemson.
Lange wants to welcome any group of kids in South Carolina to have the same experience.
“I want community members to know that they can bring young kids on campus,” she said. “You can come with your school, you can come with your church group, you can come with Upward Bound; we’ll help you organize it.”
Winston Holton, the field coordinator for Clemson’s Call Me MISTER program, said the Misters get just as much out of the day as the kids do.
“The preparation for and execution of the activities used in this event provides excellent training for the Misters as well as gives them an authentic, firsthand teaching experience that enhances their confidence and efficacy as burgeoning educators,” said Holton. Most participants in the Call Me MISTER program can relate to children who come from underprivileged homes and schools, he added.
“There’s a body of research that says the opportunity gap exceeds even the achievement gap as an impediment to future success of young people, thus, exposing these fourth-graders to the wealth of opportunities that an amazing college like Clemson provides changes their understanding and belief of what is possible,” he said. “Many of our Misters identify personally with this reality, and all of them empathize with and support this elevating cause.”
Lange emphasized that the goal is not to produce future Clemson students, but for Clemson to do whatever small part it can to brighten the future for any and every child in South Carolina.
“We’re a land-grant school. Nothing we’re doing is a specifically pipeline,” she said. “They might not even go to Clemson, but if they leave here and they have college on their mind, we have done our job.”