Professor and playwright Elmo Terry-Morgan scanned the faces of the eighth grade Highlander Charter School students seated in the rows of Rites and Reason Theater. “How many of you want to go to college?” he asked. Every hand in the room shot up.
Their teacher, Simona Simpson-Thomas, sighed. “That makes me want to cry,” she whispered.
She later explained: “These students just started career projects and a lot of them didn’t know what they wanted to do, but now after exploring schools and majors, to have everyone here say they want to go to college? That’s awesome.”
The Highlander students were among nearly 200 middle- and high-school students from Providence-area schools that visited Brown this week as part of the “A Day @ College” program, organized by Holly Harriel, director of education outreach at Brown. Now in its fourth year, the program gives young students a glimpse of what college actually is and aims to make it a real and tangible option for their futures. In addition to Highlander, teens from Providence Career and Technical Academy, Esek Hopkins Middle School, and Gilbert Stuart Middle School took part this year.
“The students hear adults talk about college being important and, at times, teachers talking about what college is like, but there is no substitute for the real thing — walking the halls and theaters, seeing and talking with current students while they study or hang out on the lawn,” said John Wolf, a math teacher at Highlander.
Each group of students started their Day @ College touring the athletic complex and Rites and Reasons Theater, where they had a conversation with Terry-Morgan, the artistic director. Terry-Morgan fielded various questions, discussed his own personal history and career path, and asked why the students wanted to go to college (answers included “I want to be independent and get a good job,” “my parents are making me,’ and “to be better than what people expect me to be.”) Whatever their reason, Terry-Morgan assured students that going to college will “improve your minds, help you solve problems, and think critically.”
Over lunch at the Sharpe Refectory (a highlight for most of the visitors), Brown faculty, staff, and students joined the teens at tables for “"Career Conversations,” an opportunity for more personal discussions about reasons for going to college, how people pay for higher education, college sports, and different career paths and interests.
“I wanted to use the short time I had with the students to encourage and empower them to take ownership of their futures,” said Michelle Nuey, a staff member of the Department of Public Safety who led a table discussion. “I told them that they were not too young to start thinking about their futures ... and ensured them that if they applied themselves 100 percent toward their education, opportunities would present themselves at every turn.”
Following lunch, the students competed in a digital photo scavenger hunt, which had them racing across campus to identify and take group photos in front of various buildings, statues, and landmarks, including University Hall, the Caesar Augustus statue, and the Van Wickle Gates. The photos will be sent to the teachers and shared with the students. “I want them to see themselves on a college campus. That’s a vision I want them to carry with them as they continue with their studies,” Harriel said.
In addition to the scavenger hunt photos, the students leave “A Day @ College” with new ideas, opinions, and vocabulary words, according to their teachers. Many of the students said the experience helped solidify their plans for the future.
“Today has shown me that college can be hard, but it can be worth it,” said 13-year-old Jazmin from Esek Hopkins. “I know I want to do it so that I can get a job, have a career, and possibly raise a family.”
Harriel emphasizes that the “A Day @ College” program isn’t just about students coming to Brown, it’s about students learning overall about college access and career exploration. “I’m hearing that the students are returning to their schools excited about the ‘possibility of opportunity,’ and that’s what is encouraging,” Harriel said.