Three years ago, NaJa Jackson’s high school guidance counselor suggested she join a program on the Vassar campus designed to help local students prepare for college. Jackson signed up, and her participation in the Exploring College program would have to be termed a success: She’s a member of Vassar’s Class of 2018.
“I always knew I wanted to go to college,” Jackson says, “but this program definitely pushes you to try harder to reach your goal. The whole experience -- the time I spent on campus, the students and staff I met in the workshops – it all reaffirms your determination to get to college.”
Jackson is one of more than 100 local high school students who have enrolled in Exploring College since its inception in 2009. The program seeks to improve college preparation and attendance for academically promising students from low-income backgrounds in Poughkeepsie and other nearby school districts. Most of those who enroll are from families who have never had anyone attend college.
Participants attend monthly workshops on such topics as career exploration, writing a college essay, researching types of colleges, financial aid, and personal budgeting. Every summer, approximately 20 students who are entering their sophomore year of high school attend a two-week session on the Vassar campus, where they take sample college-level courses and experience life in a college dormitory.
Assistant professor of education Tracey Holland, faculty director of the program, says sharing in the success of the students enrolled in Exploring College has been gratifying. “Hearing about where the students are going to college, and about the financial aid they’re receiving--those are some of the rewards for us here on campus,” Holland says.
Holland, who teaches a class during the two-week summer session, says she’s impressed by the level of work the young students produce. “Their critical thinking, their ability to understand sophisticated concepts, that’s rewarding to me,” she says. “They bring a lot of thought-provoking ideas to the table.”
The program’s new administrative director, Angelica Gutierrez ’13, says one of her main goals is teaching the students how to advocate for themselves as they navigate the college application process. “We teach them to ask questions and to say, ‘I don’t understand; can you re-phrase the question?’” Gutierrez says. “But it’s rewarding. Students tell us all the time, ‘I wouldn’t be in college if not for this program.’”
One student who attended this summer’s session on campus, Poughkeepsie High School sophomore Jawaun Walters, says the experience gave him an early insight into what college is like. “The volume of work we had to do for the classes was a challenge for a lot of us,” Walters says. “I had to learn to budget my time to get all my homework done – I learned not to procrastinate. And living in the dorm was interesting. Being away from home was a whole new experience.”
Graduates of the program say they didn’t fully realize how much Exploring College benefited them until they got to college themselves. “I took advantage of all the workshops as well as the summer program, and it really helped me improve my writing and helped my parents obtain financial aid,” says Tyrece Whitaker, a Poughkeepsie High School grad who is entering his sophomore year at Ithaca College.
Another Poughkeepsie High School grad, Jovaun “Jojo” Buchanan, agreed. “The classes you take during the summer session really encourage you to engage in discussion, to ask follow-up questions, and that’s what your classes are like in college,” says Buchanan, a sophomore at the State of New York University at Albany.
NaJa Jackson’s mother, Natalie Jackson, says she was grateful to the Exploring College staff for keeping her and her husband informed about the opportunities and services the program had to offer. “I’d never heard of the program until NaJa’s counselor at Arlington High School told us about it, but I don’t know if she’d be coming to Vassar this fall without it,” Jackson says.
“Exploring College is a great opportunity for these kids,” she adds. “It opens a lot of doors; it changes lives.”
NaJa Jackson says her family isn’t through with Exploring College: “I’ve got a little brother in middle school. I’ve already told him, ‘You’re going.’”