July 14, 2008

College Summit Program Helps Students Find a School That Fits

By Rob Novit, Aiken Standard, S.C.

Jul. 14--The lobby at USC Aiken residential hall Pacer Commons had nearly emptied of teenage campers Sunday afternoon. USCA sophomore Jessica Dupree gathered some notes addressed to her and settled into a lobby chair to read them.

Invariably, the exercise and sports science major broke into a warm smile every few moments as she read the messages from College Summit campers. One girl wrote: "Thank you for helping me with everything. I enjoyed talking to you about what college I would like to go to."

College Summit is a year-round program that directs a series of four-day camps at partner colleges for rising high school seniors. The students get assistance in navigating the college application process, as well as activities aimed at boosting their self-confidence and leadership skills. A total of 39 students attended the USCA event, one of five scheduled in South Carolina this summer.

Dupree is serving as an alumni leader, having completed the College Summit program in 2006 before her senior year at Edisto High School in Orangeburg. This is her third summit and the first at USCA. She was delighted to come back to her own college for the program.

The USCA session "went well," Dupree said. "I reached out to the quiet students, because I identified with them. I was one of the quiet ones when I attended the camp."

College Summit is a national non-profit organization that targets low-income students. The program currently is working with seven school districts in the state, said South Carolina executive director YaKima Rhinehart.

"The program was founded in Washington, D.C., by a former Harvard University academic advisor," she said. "He was seeing high school seniors who were bright but a year later were not in college. He realized there was a break in the system."

Rhinehart credited the efforts of U.S. Rep. James Clyburn to bring College Summit to South Carolina. The organization is responding to a need and is looking for more school districts to get involved, she said. Currently, College Summit is reaching hundreds of kids during the school year -- either through a stand-alone elective course or with information embedded in other classes.

The camp included volunteer high school and college counselors and several writing coaches. That's a key component of College Summit -- writing, writing and more writing in preparation for the college application essay.

"When the students get here," said writing coach trainer Patrice Russo of Massachusetts, "we ask them to write freely for 10 minutes, to let their minds wander on paper. This is the only part of the application in which students can advocate for themselves. They don't need to say what they want to do in life but can find that story they want to share. We're getting stories that are amazing and beautiful."

The organization is appealing on a personal level for Randy Duckett, USCA's vice chancellor for enrollment services. His chosen profession is college admissions, letting students know about the possibility of attending college. The program has a similar philosophy to the former GEAR-UP program housed on the USCA campus, which worked with middle school students.

"This seemed to be a natural fit for us," Duckett said. "This is a different group of people who are in other counties in areas where people really need to be motivated. We're not hosting it for recruitment purposes, but we do want (the students) exposed to our facilities. If USCA is a good fit for them, that's fine."

Typically, College Summit serves schools and students with high percentages of student eligible for free and reduced lunch fees. Shyeba Williams attends Hunter-Kinard-Tyler High near North. She readily admitted she knew few people when she arrived and didn't like the program. By Saturday, she was already sad that the session would end the following day.

"The writing was really helpful to get some of my stuff down," Williams said. "Now I really feel I can get out and come to college. I just wish more of my classmates would have come."

Rhinehart said some students can't attend because of work constraints; in other cases, the parents are reluctant to let them leave home. But Williams and other students can return to school and share what they've learned with their friends, Rhinehart said.

Jessica Dupree moved from Eutawville and Lake Marion High School before her sophomore year and transferred to the larger Orangeburg and Edisto High. She struggled with making new friends and finding support at the school.

"I basically felt defeated," she said. "But when the guidance counselor chose me and a few others for College Summit, my confidence went up because someone saw potential in me."

Yet when she arrived at the University of South Carolina that summer in 2006, she was immediately ready to return home. Dupree felt overwhelmed at first, but the leaders kept encouraging her, especially with the writing exercises.

"I didn't like to talk about my struggles at first," she said. "But I started writing about my progress at College Summit. It was a self-realization that I had been in denial, that I could keep running from my problems. I really became motivated and now it's exciting to be here now as an alumni leader. I want to guide and encourage the students that they can succeed, that anything is possible."

For more information about the program, Rhinehart can be reached at 803-536-8606 or at [email protected]

Contact Rob Novit at [email protected]


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