College for the unlikely
It’s another day and another orientation at the University of Central Florida. Volunteers and cheerleaders form a tunnel for students to run through as they enter the grand Pegasus Ballroom. The room is packed full with students taking it all in, anxiously looking at each other, trying to act cool, but mostly enthralled with the video playing on the big screen showing scenes of Spirit Splash and other UCF traditions. Between leaders constantly giving high fives, grinning from ear to ear, and the UCF fight song drowning out any hope of conversation, it’s all a little overwhelming. Especially considering the tops of the pint-sized students’ heads in attendance didn’t come close to the height of Knightro’s shoulders. More than 500 fifth graders swarmed to the UCF main campus on Feb. 23 to get a taste of what being a college student is like.
Thanks to a grant from Orlando SOUP, Achieve a College Education Day, or ACE Day for short, allowed 500 fifth-graders from local Title-1 elementary schools to attend UCF for a day of fun, interactive workshops, a tour of a dorm, and one-on-one time with their team leaders. Orlando SOUP, a micro-granting dinner for creative projects in the Orlando community held at the East End Market, gave members of its community the chance to vote on four projects to fund, and they chose the ACE day project. SOUP granted the program with $700 in donations. Alex Lenhoff, an Orlando SOUP organizer and media sponsor, said that part of the secret to ACE Day’s success was the urgency that the program needed the funding to continue.
“People appreciate projects like this that help kids, and that not many people know about,” Lenhoff said.
The annual event, hosted by the Burnett Honors College allows low-income elementary schools – McCoy, Lake Weston, Pineloch, Shingle Creek, and Winegard elementary each participating this year – to bring their fifth grade classes to come to UCF and shadow college students. They start with a pep rally in the heart of campus, and then attend various workshops with faculty who demonstrate lessons in biology, meteorology and engineering, among other subjects. Kelly Astro, director of research and civic engagement at UCF, said that the program could only accommodate as many fifth graders as it can afford, and with a cost of roughly $25 per students, the Orlando SOUP grant helped nearly an entire extra classroom’s worth of students join in on the day.
According to a recent New York Time’s article, the trend of introducing college to fourth, fifth, and sixth graders is increasing nationwide. Kids go on field trips to college campuses bursting with dozens of questions, “Will I get in trouble if I have my phone at school?” or “Do college students really live and sleep with complete strangers at school?” Some say that this is all just adding to the college admission chaos, and that by the time kids reach their high school graduation they may too burned out to apply.
But according to the same article, sources say it is unrealistic to assume that every kid will be college-ready on their own by the time they hit their 18th birthday. Wendy Segal, a tutor and college planner in Westchester County, N.Y., told the New York Times that, on a smaller scale, it’s a lot like training your child to be an Olympian.
“You don’t wait until your kid is 17 and say, ‘My kid really loves ice skating.’ You start when they are 5, or 6,” Segal told the Times.
Two seniors at UCF share this dream of giving fifth graders the opportunity to attend college. For Winter Park High grad Vanessa Nguyen and Edgewater High grad Daniel Washburn, this year was their second time participating and their first time as team captains for ACE Day. Nguyen and Washburn led the almost-middle schoolers around campus and gave them a taste of their world.
“ACE Day is good at planting the seed, just to be able to spend a whole day with fifth graders is huge,” Nguyen, a biomedical sciences major, said.
Washburn, an industrial engineering major, said that it was assumed that he attend UCF, where both his parents are alumni. Washburn hopes that kids who may not have had the same upbringing, will have the same opportunity. The goal of ACE, and many other such programs springing up across the country, is to get young students to picture themselves in college.
“I think it’s realistic for anyone to go [to college]. I think the more support they have from their family members and friends, and more acceptance of it would be beneficial,” Washburn said.
When kids are still hanging out on the jungle gym, college applications may seem irrelevant for any family, low- or high-income. But according to a study from the Pell Institute last month, the family income gap in bachelor’s degree attainment has grown in the last 43 years. For families in the lower income groups, bachelor’s degree completion rates have only risen 3 percent since 1970. In contrast, individuals from the highest-income families are eight times more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree than individuals in low-income families. Astro agreed that this is why there is a significant need for programs like ACE to bring kids from lower-income brackets to fill out college applications and earn a bachelor’s, all the while not compromising their childhood fun on the monkey bars.
For Astro, it has been fun to watch Nguyen and Washburn grow as leaders.
“Both Daniel and Vanessa are far more concerned with the concern of others and making sure that everyone has a fair shot at equal opportunity whether that is a college freshman or a fifth grader,” Astro said.
Nguyen and Washburn met their freshman year through the Honors Symposium program, a service-learning course where they went to elementary schools and taught kids specific goals on how to get to college. Now, both have their eyes set on giving the ACE Day participants the same opportunities that they’ve had.
“It was meaningful to know that even this small investment of time can make a difference in the kids’ lives,” Washburn said.
At the end of the day as the students waited to board their buses back to school, they held their heads a little higher, and stood a little taller, proudly sporting their ACE Day T-shirts, even if for some hung from their small frames oversized to fit more like a dress. As the wheels of the bus turned to bring them back home, so did the wheels in their minds – imagining the day eight years from now when they’d step back on campus to go through orientation all over again, this time as real college students.