Cultivating college

Ten-year-old Alan Villalba had never been to UNC-Chapel Hill before a school field trip last spring, but the visit through a unique UNC program left him fired up about Carolina, and more importantly, about going to college one day.

“It was awesome,” said Villalba, then a fifth grader from Peck Elementary School in Guilford County. “I want to get an education and I want to have a career.”

Villalba’s response is just what the staff and students who participate in UNC’s First Look program want to hear. The First Look program introduces upper elementary and middle school students to the concept of college, from academics, the arts, athletics, student life and more, in a fun and accessible way. The goal isn’t to get all of the students to apply to Carolina one day; it’s to get the young students interested and motivated to go to any college, and middle school is the prime age to reach them.

“We are just making sure they can see themselves in college,” says Daniel Dinkins, who graduated in May and led First Look tour groups for four years. “We don’t feel we are going to be a final destination, but we are planting a seed.”

Since First Look began in 2008, thousands of students from across North Carolina have visited UNC through the program. Missy Julian-Fox, director of UNC Visitors’ Center, created and runs First Look, but UNC students are the face of the program, serving as discussion facilitators and tour group leaders.

“First Look is a link to increasing North Carolina’s high school graduation rate and the pursuit of post-secondary education. It is critical to connect the middle school classroom to college,” Julian-Fox says.

“Actual college students sharing their ideas, insights, concerns and exuberance is powerful. They can easily still touch their own middle and high school years,” Julian-Fox says. “For middle school students, the experience is honest, current and in their own language. There is no lecturing, preaching or pleading.”

A typical day for a First Look session starts in a classroom where the young students watch a seven-minute video that shows an overview of what they will see, learn and experience as college students, including studying, joking around with friends and celebrating after a big athletic win. The students then break into groups and each group learns a different aspect of college. The UNC students become the professors, fielding questions and encouraging interaction among the middle school students.

The final classroom activity is a group discussion about paying for college and scholarship opportunities. At a First Look tour last spring, psychology major Tim McAllister, who is one of 11 children, told the group that his father encouraged him to go to college but also told McAllister that he would have to pay for college on his own. McAllister told the young students that he received a Carolina Covenant Scholarship, which promises a debt-free education to participants.

“The lack of money to pay for college is often a No. 1 reason why kids think college is not an option,” Julian-Fox says. “It is critical that they hear real and concrete answers to the barriers that can take them away from a path to college.”

The UNC students then lead the younger students on a campus tour. They take a look at the Union and the Pit, learn that Davis Library is eight stories tall and campus is 1½ miles long, drink from the Old Well, peek into a lecture hall while a class is in session and walk through Polk Place and Kenan Stadium, all the while discussing the challenges and benefits of a college education.

John Thomas, a fifth grade math teacher from Peck Elementary, said it was significant that his students heard the older students stress that college requires hard work. During the tour in the spring, he also said it was important that his students were seeing college students studying and that there is more to college than just classrooms.

“Our students need to understand that they need to be academically prepared to go to college,” says Thomas. “We try to explain that typically the more education they have, the more money they will make.”

McAllister says many of the younger students who tour campus through First Look would be the first in their family to attend college. “They are just like we were when we first came here _ walking around, staring at everything,” McAllister says.

“Connecting to students when they are in middle school is crucial because that is when they are forming study habits, thinking about extracurricular activities and starting to choose the classes they will take in high school,” Julian-Fox says. First Look helps tie those things together by giving students a close-up view of college.

“We just want to put the idea of college in their heads,” says Tori Darby, who graduated from Carolina in May and now works for the Carolina College Advising Corps. “It doesn’t have to be UNC. We just want them to go to college.”

Story by Natalie Vizuete, video by Rob Holliday and photo by Dan Sears, all of University Relations.

Published September 6, 2013.