Summit County high schoolers become first in family to attend college
Summit High School senior Tessa Winston has deep mountain roots. She is a sixth generation Summit County native and, this Friday, will represent the fourth generation in her family to graduate from Summit High School. This fall, however, Winston will represent a family first when she starts classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy, however.
“I always knew I wanted to go to college,” Winston said, “but I never knew anything about the process.”
Fortunately, she had a lot of support, not only from family, but from the high school as well. In her junior year, she signed up for the Pre-Collegiate Program, which is designed specifically to assist students whose parents haven’t attended college with the process of applying and academically preparing for post-secondary education.
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Pinpointing a need
The Pre-Collegiate Program came into being four years ago, starting in the fall of 2009. Around that time, the people at The Summit Foundation noticed that applications for local scholarships for college were very low among a certain part of the student population — those whose parents hadn’t attended college. In an attempt to breach that gap and assist those who fell into that category, The Summit Foundation awarded the high school a three-year start-up grant, which was the beginnings of the Pre-Collegiate Program.
Enter Mollly Griffith, fresh from a dropout prevention program in Boulder. When she read the job description, she got excited.
“I read it and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, it’s my dream job,’” she said with a grin.
Griffith’s energy and enthusiasm are obvious in her every word and movement. She bustles around the program office, juggling phone calls, emails and drop-ins from students and mentors, greeting them each by name and with personal recognition.
Right from the beginning, Griffith hit the ground running, wanting to get the program organized as quickly as possible, while making sure it met all the requirements.
“When you’re in a rural community and you’re a community-based program, you need to figure out the needs of your population,” she said. “We created the program around the students.”
The program started with the goal of recruiting 10 students per grade from grades eighth through 11.
“We immediately had 15 to 20 students per grade,” Griffith said, which indicated that student interest existed hand-in-hand with the need for such a program.
Laying the groundwork
While the program does its best to allow any eligible student to join, it’s not just a quick sign-up process. All interested students must have at least a 2.5 grade point average and fill out an application, answering questions about their goals and motivations in regard to college.
“They need to show that they’re academically motivated,” Griffith said. Even if students don’t immediately meet the GPA requirement, if they show a willingness to improve, they can have a shot at the program. “If they want to work for it, then we’ll work with them. We don’t turn that student away.”
There is a wait list, which can take up to a semester to get through.
Once accepted into the program, students are set up with adult mentors, who are volunteers from the school district staff and community and take on groups of four to six mentees. Students take ACT classes and receive tutoring for other subjects, and are required to maintain their schedules with their mentors.
J. Kent McHose is on the board of education and has been a mentor from the program’s beginning.
“One of the big values is to help them realize their potential and widen their horizons as to what that potential would look like,” he said.
The program is even expanding into the middle school, giving students even more time to prepare for their lives after graduation. Griffith also plans to match older students in the program as mentors to the younger students, hoping that the high school students can serve as accessible role models to the middle schoolers.
A chance to travel
Another important aspect of the program is giving its students a chance to leave Summit County and physically visit other colleges, not only throughout Colorado but out of state as well.
“I’m a big believer that Summit is a beautiful place, but if you don’t have the resources it’s a hard place to travel out of, because everything’s far from Summit,” Griffith said. “If you visit somewhere you can envision it more easily.”
This year, grant money allowed the program to take 14 students on a college-exploring trip around Boston and New York, visiting Boston University, Columbia, MIT, Dartmouth and more.
Winston was one of the students along on that trip.
“It took my views and broadened them,” she said. “I fell in love with Boston University and I’m considering it for grad school.”
Not only were the students exposed to a variety of colleges that were different from those in Colorado, but they got a taste of life out of the mountains as well.
“It’s just as much about the culture of where you’re visiting as it is the colleges,” Griffith said. She added that the big value of the visits to colleges was empowering the students and introducing them to the possibility of thinking beyond state boundaries.
While each of the students in the Pre-Collegiate Program are potential first-generation college students, each of them has a different story. Some enter the program with the support and encouragement of their parents, while others come from families where the subject of college is hardly even discussed, much less considered.
Clarisa De Niz, who is graduating this year, joined the program as a sophomore. At first, her parents weren’t sure that was a good idea.
“At the beginning, they really weren’t happy with me going to college,” she said, “but now I think they’re warming up to it and they want a better future for me.”
Though convincing them was difficult, having their support now makes a big difference, De Niz said.
After graduation, she’s planning on attending Colorado Mesa University to pursue business administration.
Now in its fourth year, funding for the program comes from a number of sources, including Summit School District, The Summit Foundation, Vail ECHO, Tony Grampsas grants through the county and a private contributor.
Griffith emphasized how community support has rallied around the program and allowed it to continue.
“This program exists because nonprofits and individuals in this community are generous with their time and their resources,” she said. “There is no way we could do all that we do and have this level of success without all of the support we get from the Summit community. It takes a village to raise a child and get him or her through high school and on to post-secondary education, and that is how this program has grown.”
Program participants are just as enthusiastic in their endorsement of the program, encouraging their classmates to check it out.
“It’s an awesome program,” Winston said, “and everyone who can do it should.”
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