By C.V. Moore
On Thursday, 42 Yale University alumni snacked on pepperoni rolls and fried green tomatoes at the WVU Tech campus in Montgomery. For most, the luncheon laid out before them was a first taste of West Virginia.
And for many of the 130 West Virginia high schoolers they were about to meet, the day would be a first taste of the possibilities offered by higher education.
This meeting of the minds is the result of College Summit West Virginia’s summer workshop, a free program aimed at coaching the state’s youth through the college selection and application process.
Members of the Yale Alumni Service Corps, including professors, doctors and ministers, traveled from across the country and nation to mentor students from Raleigh, McDowell, Putnam, Webster, Wyoming, Greenbrier and Mingo counties.
The rising seniors — identified by the staff of their high schools as particularly full of drive or in need of guidance — began arriving at WVU Tech on Thursday afternoon. After checking into the college dorm, they were hustled off to an orientation.
On the chalkboard were written five goals for the weekend: financial aid, practice applications, college coaching, personal statements and peer leadership.
Hailey Cales, a rising senior at Woodrow Wilson High School, came from Beckley with 30 of her classmates. She’s already cleared one hurdle — both her parents, she says, are “dead set” on her attending college. But that doesn’t mean that all her challenges are over.
“The college process is not in any way clear to me,” she says. “I’ve never even looked at a college application.”
By the time she leaves Montgomery, she will have a list of colleges to apply to, a personal statement to staple to her applications, and great-er insight into the entire admissions process.
“For so many of our students, their only contact with college-educated people are their teachers or their doctor,” says Jon Charles, executive director of College Summit West Virginia. “We’re excited to give them mentoring from people with professional backgrounds from all over the country.”
College Summit is also about giving the students a mini-college experience. For some, this is their first opportunity to see what a college campus actually looks and feels like. The hope is that college therefore becomes more concrete and attainable as a goal.
Many of the participating students are potentially first-generation college goers who may have confidence issues to deal with, along with financial and academic hurdles. Some have even been discouraged by parents who don’t think they can afford tuition and don’t want to see their child disappointed.
“It’s really about opening their eyes to possibility,” says Adrienne King of WVU Tech, who volunteered for College Summit last year at the campus of Fairmont State. Her experience showed her that the program isn’t about editing college application essays so much as it is reinforcing the idea that college is indeed an achievable goal.
When the weekend is over, students are expected to return to their high school campuses as “peer leaders” who encourage their fellow students to apply to college.
“The financial piece is, of course, the challenge for any of them. We have to make sure, whatever they do, if they end up with student loans that they can get a job to pay for it,” says Dr. Carolyn Long, WVU Tech’s campus executive officer, who volunteered as a college coach last year with College Summit.
Through persistent, one-on-one conversations, she came to discover that one shy, introverted male student she mentored was extremely good at mathematics and very articulate. He hadn’t filled out a college application, or even thought about it. She worked through some financial issues with him and they’ve stayed in touch. This fall, he’s off to college.
Constance Spencer, who earned a master’s degree in architecture from Yale in 1982, chairs the Yale Service Corps and coordinated the trip to West Virginia this year. She’s been with the program since its inception in 2008, traveling to the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, China, Ghana and Brazil for service projects.
This is the Corps’ first domestic trip. They wanted to serve a rural community and give their participants a unique cultural experience. College Summit was founded by a Yale alumnus and West Virginia seemed like a fascinating place to visit, so the shoe fit.
Thursday morning, Yale Alumni Service Corps members visited the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine and Whipple Company Store & Appalachian Heritage Educational Museum to get a sense of the cultural landscape in which the high schoolers are situated.
Spencer says the program is trying to instill a sense of hope and to help students understand all their options.
“Yes, they could go into the mines, but if they go to college, they have perhaps more choices,” she says. “Their earning potential increases by 30 percent for every level of school they attend, on average.
“If you have enough gumption and drive, you can go anywhere. That’s an important lesson we hope to pass on.”
Yale and many other top tier universities now offer free rides to families below a certain income threshold, lifting financial barriers that have held low-income students back for generations.
Across the railroad tracks at orientation, students looked on with quiet attention as Lionel Chinnery, writing coach coordinator for College Summit, tried to drum up their enthusiasm.
“Don’t be nervous,” he said. “We’re going to ask you to do some things you’ve never been asked to do before. But I know you can do it. Do you believe it?”
The students mumbled in unconvincing agreement.
But by the time he asked the question five more times, the students cheered in unison, “Yes!”
College Summit is a national program sponsored by Energy Corporation of America Foundation, an oil and gas company based in Colorado with its eastern headquarters in Charleston. In West Virginia, its summer workshops have served thousands of students from 12 districts and 27 high schools. Each school district chips in 20 percent of program costs, and the remainder is raised through private donations.
To learn more about College Summit West Virginia, visit http://www.collegesummit.org/regions/west-virginia or call Megan Hannah at 304-204-4061.
The program is always looking for volunteers.
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