To paraphrase Plato, the direction in which a person’s education starts will determine their future. That path starts long before higher education, of course, and a growing number of UNC Asheville programs and partnerships cultivate relationships with students who are decidedly pre-collegiate, planting the seeds of a brighter educational future.
College must seem a most-distant matter to a kindergartner or third grader, if it’s on their radar at all. But the power of a university setting starts to come into focus at UNC Asheville’s Lookout Observatory, where local elementary school students visit for their first look at the world outside our solar system.
“It starts when the roof rolls off, which is cool to see, and then their eyes get even wider when they get excited about seeing the telescopes,” says Judy Beck, a lecturer in physics and astronomy who helps explain the great beyond to observatory visitors. Since opening two years ago in partnership with the Astronomy Club of Asheville, the observatory has hosted more than 4,500 public visitors, with about 700 of them from school groups.
And that’s just a small fraction of the pre-college students coming to campus. In fact, there’s an ever-widening K-12 pipeline bringing young students closer to higher education through their interactions with UNC Asheville, whether or not they ultimately attend college here. And either way, it’s bringing star students into the university’s orbit.
An Eye on Higher Education
Many middle schoolers will take their first steps on a college campus through the Junior Bulldog and GEAR UP programs.
“We’ll serve something like 2,500 middle schoolers through Junior Bulldogs this year,” says the university's director of pre-college outreach and GEAR UP grant programs, Andrea Martinez. The students visit campus for an action-packed five hours that include a scavenger hunt, a workout with the Athletics Department, two “academic adventures” in classrooms and a meal at the dining hall.
“They experience some independence about how they choose to eat, which at that age resonates in a very specific way,” Martinez says, “and all while going through a series of creative, hands-on learning programs.”
Many Junior Bulldog participants also take part in GEAR UP, a more extensive effort to promote “a college-bound culture,” as Martinez puts it. Along with Appalachian State University, UNC Asheville uses the program to spark awareness among students from 11 mostly rural Western North Carolina counties: Alleghany, Ashe, Burke, Clay, Graham, Madison, Rutherford, Swain, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey.
Standing for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, GEAR UP is a federal program started in 1990s that’s buoyed by state grant funds. It begins at the sixth-grade level, and students in the program are supported all the way until they reach college. Among its many components are tutoring by UNC Asheville faculty and students, classes on how to enter high school with an eye on higher education, and cost-free professional development for area teachers involved in promoting college access.
GEAR UP participants also attend “summer academies” at the university that include engagement with students and faculty, most involved with STEM fields, and an overnight stay in residence halls.
“This gives them a first sense of what it’s like to go to college,” Martinez says, and often the students come from families with little prior experience with higher education. Along the way, the students learn about financial aid, the importance of GPAs and testing skills, and what the future’s skilled workforce might look like. “We’re preparing them for careers that, in some cases, don’t even exist yet,” Martinez notes.
Why invest so much effort in reaching out to such young students? On the one hand, it’s never too soon to put them on a trajectory that could take them to college. “It’s hard to reach a kid once they’ve reached 10th or 11th grade and they haven’t had the support to know what could help them head toward college in terms of courses and what skill sets they need to enter university,” Martinez says.
“It’s pretty heartbreaking to have a kid decide in 11th grade that they want to go to college but don’t have the right level math classes or any experience with a foreign language, or they’re not prepared to take entrance tests because they haven’t built their writing skills over the years,” she adds. “It’s so hard to cram that in at the last year or two before college. Even if they are entirely capable, intellectually, they’re starting at a deficit. Middle school is the time to build the habits that you need, instead of when we’re staring at their transcript on a college application.”
That outreach is important for the institution too. “Because we’re a public university, and we’re situated in Western North Carolina, it’s really important that we serve the communities around us,” Martinez says.
“It would be a waste for us to be an Ivory Tower on a hill and not offer access to communities that typically have not had access, either because of economic resources or other reasons. Ultimately, it helps the intellectual community, because by keeping those students out of college pipelines, you’re effectively raising an echo chamber of other people who are just like you and have the same experiences and backgrounds. That lacks vibrancy and real diversity of thought.”
Building AVID Interest
Moving into the high school level, GEAR UP’s goals are furthered for some students by Juntos (the Spanish word for together), a dropout-prevention and college-access program for Latinos that was created by North Carolina State University and adopted by UNC Asheville last year.
“It has a very large family-engagement piece, a tutoring piece, and a success-coaching, mentoring piece,” Martinez explains. About 15 students at Asheville High School and 25 at nearby Erwin High School enrolled in the program last year, which was funded by the AT&T Foundation and run by an Americorps volunteer. It’s now university supported and managed by a full-time Juntos coordinator, Vanessa Guerrero.
UNC Asheville has nurtured many more middle and high schoolers—and even starting college students—for 18 years through a larger program, AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination).
Kim Kessaris, the university’s middle and high school AVID coordinator, explains the program’s expansion: It started with a handful of UNCA students and a couple of classes at Asheville Middle School, and blossomed into an effort that now involves 50 or so university students and more than 300 middle and high school students. “Basically, we’ve grown by 10-fold,” Kessaris notes.
AVID participants get tutoring and mentoring for years, with most of it focused on fostering the organizational and studying skills, and community engagement commitments, that best prepare students for college.
“It works on so many levels in terms of supporting education,” Kessaris says. “Having college students come in and work with [younger students] consistently, AVID students gain an ability to say what they’re not so sure about. It’s a comfortable setting to ask for advice about problem solving. They learn all the steps that it takes to get to college, all of the things that aren’t sometimes obvious to teenagers.”
And again, the benefits are mutual, especially for the university’s teaching licensure students involved with AVID. “It’s a great opportunity to get hands-on experience working with students in the classroom setting,” Kessaris says—whether or not the university student wants to go into teaching. “We had a young woman who wanted to be a pediatrician, but first she wanted to spend some time with young people to make sure that was the right age group for her. So it’s good for whomever wants to work with young people or just give back to the community.”
Mariah Lee, an Asheville native and UNC Asheville sophomore who was in AVID throughout her four years at Asheville High, can testify to the program’s value. “We did a lot on time-management skills and the importance of taking good notes,” she says. “The most helpful thing was that it showed me how to get organized, because I wasn’t before. We learned the questions that we had to ask ourselves about things teachers would say in class and had tutorial sessions with UNCA students in whatever we needed help with.
“They really prepared you for college,” she says, “and expected a lot out of you.”