In a recent breakfast with a New York Times reporter, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein was asked a hypothetical question: “what would you do if the sky really were the limit, if you were not just schools chancellor, but schools czar?” His answer: “Every student would have to visit a college before finishing fifth grade.”
Here at the Steinhardt School, we couldn’t agree more. That’s why 13 years ago we established our College Connection program, bringing New York City 5th through 9th grade classes to our campus every morning of the school year.
When a class arrives accompanied by its teacher, the students are welcomed by NYU undergraduates who spend an hour talking about the academic and social aspects of college life, the admissions process, and financial aid. Their message is simple: you should go to college, you can go to college, and you need to start right now getting ready for college.
The volunteers then conduct a tour of the campus, which includes a visit to the library, the sports center, a classroom, a dorm room, and the student center. It’s the first time most of the young visitors have ever been on a college campus and teachers tell us that their students leave the visit inspired to achieve.
Through this simple arrangement, 4,000 – 5,000 middle school students get a taste of college life each year — more than 50,000 young students since the program was started in 1996.
Colleges often reach out to high school students during their junior and senior years when they appear on their radar as potential applicants. But in urban settings like New York City, this is often too late. Many city children do not know anyone who has attended college, and may assume that it is beyond their reach, both financially and academically.
Emily Harrison, who oversees the program for the Steinhardt Office of Field Projects, says: “One of the things that makes College Connection successful is that our NYU student volunteers have just recently applied to college themselves. They are in tune with the fears and uncertainties that come with thinking about college. Their stories help our young visitors realize that getting into college may be a challenge, but it’s a surmountable one.”
“College Connection is designed to get students engaged at a critical moment in their lives – before they enter high school— when there’s still time to take algebra and physics and a foreign language and the PSAT—all the stuff that’s second nature to middle class families, but may not be known by the families of many of these children,” Lee Frissell, Steinhardt’s director of field projects, says.
“I meet students who initially say they looked forward to the tour as a way of getting out of going to school,” says Monette Meier a sophomore from NYU’s Gallatin School, who was trained by Frissell and his staff to serve as a College Connection guide. “After they go on the tour — after they see the gym, the dorms, the library — they get really excited…and their eyes are opened and they say, ‘Oh, I really want to go to college.'”
For Klein, having public school children visit a college would be “a way of inculcating a culture in which a kid’s circumstance, family background, poverty, don’t influence the vision of what her options are.” Exposing public school children to the richness of college life is the mission of Steinhardt’s College Connection program.
(Photo left to right: Monette Meier, tour guide, Lee Frissell, Director of Field Projects, and Emily Harrison, College Connection coordinator, share a light moment in Steinhardt’s Office of Field Projects in Steinhardt’s College Connection office.)