Organization prepares students for next stage
High school students across West Virginia are preparing for college and making an impact in the lives of their fellow students in the process.
College Summit is a national nonprofit organization that promotes college readiness and encourages academic excellence and is helping high school students prepare for and succeed at college.
J.B. Schram founded the organization 20 years ago in the basement of a housing complex in Washington, D.C.
He realized in working with the youth in the complex that there were students who had the capacity and the ability to attend college, but did not have the resources or the understanding of how the process worked.
College Summit West Virginia originated in 2001 as a project of the Energy Corp. of America when it realized that they did not have the educated workforce they needed. The ECA provided funding to the program to educate West Virginia students and help them to advance in the sciences and other technical fields.
Currently, the program is active in 26 schools, in 12 counties, and serves more 8,000 students across the state.
Each summer, College Summit conducts workshops on various college campuses. For four days volunteers work with rising high school seniors to prepare them for the college admission process and to equip them with the necessary tools to exhort their fellow students.
"We really try to target students that we consider better than their numbers," Community Relations Manager Jen Wood explained.
College Summit works with guidance counselors to identify the most influential students from the rising senior class and encourage them to apply for the summer workshops.
While attending the workshops, students are introduced to college life by doing the things college students do every day, such as eating in the cafeteria and living in a dorm environment with students from other schools.
Students are paired with volunteer alumni leaders who have graduated the College Summit program and act as big brothers and sisters to the students.
The upcoming seniors who attend the workshop return to their schools as "peer leaders" upon completion of their five goals: financial aid, college application, college coaching session, personal statement and peer leaderships.
The Tower of Power session is a team-building exercise designed to teach college-bound seniors about financial aid and self-advocacy. Here, students work together to build a sustainable financial aid package based on grants, scholarships, family contribution and student loans.
When finished, each student goes to a designated table and advocates for himself or herself about why they should be given a certain type of financial aid.
During the personal statement aspect of the workshop, volunteers help students write a personal statement for college entrance and scholarship applications.
"For them to be able to advocate for themselves in written and oral form is really what we strive for and get them to learn at the workshop," said Wood.
Writing coaches work with the students, helping them to write creative personal statements that captures the reader's attention.
In college coaching sessions, volunteers emphasize the importance of finding the right "college fit," dispelling the myths that big colleges are always better and that a four-year degree makes someone more employable than a two-year degree.
Students also attend "rap sessions" that help them overcome obstacles and develop leadership skills. These sessions also empower students to believe that college is indeed attainable.
"It is truly amazing to me the change that can happen in a student, and in a person in general, in four days," Wood said about the students and volunteers.
It is a place where students and volunteers can be themselves and work toward a common goal free of judgment.
After attending the workshop, participants then go back into their schools for their senior year and serve as teachers' aides and peer mentors to underclassmen.
Students at Midland Trail High School in Hico piloted a program called "Peer Mentors" in which seniors are paired up with "at risk" freshmen to act as an accountability partner. The model is now used in College Summit schools across the state.
The peer mentoring aspect is designed to improve attendance and class performance for the ninth-grader and to decrease the symptoms of "senioritis" for the seniors because they feel more accountable and involved.
Peer leaders at Midland Trail also spend one day per month leading a sessions for freshmen to teach them about financial aid, overcoming obstacles, and how to deal with grades.
These student leaders developed their ideas for the sessions based on what they learned at the College Summit workshop.
"I feel privileged to help Trail students, especially the freshmen," Peer Leader Ericka Hinte said. "I want to help them understand that they can do anything they put their minds to."
Seniors at Winfield High School used their experience at the workshop to create and lead sessions with juniors to teach them about resume building, ACT and SAT prep and time management.
Wood said, "We try to utilize our students in the classroom as much as possible, but we don't throw them to the wolves by any means."
A College Summit representative is always present in the classroom to help and encourage the students.
Another program the Peer Leaders help to facilitate in the schools is called "Signaling." Here, banners or pennants are displayed when a student is accepted to college for their fellow students to see.
The purpose of this program is not just to give recognition to the student who is accepted to college, but also to send a message to other students that they can do it too.
Nicholas Alexander is graduated from the College Summit high school program at Valley High School and now attends college at Marshall University.
He said, "As a peer leader I have helped my fellow graduates prepare for college, and I've also helped to expose the freshman at my alma mater to college and helped them to start thinking about it."
It is this type of experience that really makes College Summit a "pay it forward" program, Woods remarked.
Wood said the mentality across the state is that college is unattainable, so it is important to show students that they can go to college and to equip them with information on how to make it possible.
"Our ultimate goal is to build the capacity of the school," Wood said about the program.
College Summit is there, initially, to provide knowledge and support, but the overall objective is to prepare schools to sustain these types of programs on their own.