Raising aspirations

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BOSTON – Subways clanged, cabs honked and sirens wailed as students hugging books and wearing iPods strode confidently past.

With Boston all around them, 35 Lewiston High School sophomores stepped out of a bus and walked into another world: college.

Wearing sweatshirts, Blue Devils jackets and jeans, the group split into two and began touring Northeastern University.

Like a growing number of Maine high schools, Lewiston High isn’t just telling students they should go to college. It’s showing them what college is like.

On Tuesday, one group of Lewiston sophomores toured the Boston campus guided by Kevin Brown, a Northeastern upperclassman majoring in human resources.

He showed them the physics building, the engineering college, the business college, a freshmen quad area, the Curry Student Center where students have all kinds of fast-food choices, and the Snell Library.

“It’s the largest library in Boston,” Brown bragged, noting that it is open until 2 a.m. during finals. There’s also a Cyber Cafe, open 24 hours a day.

Brown also showed them the Cabot Gym where the university’s teams compete. “Five minutes from this direction is where our men’s basketball and hockey teams play at Matthews Arena,” Brown said, pointing and shouting over traffic as the group stood on Huntington Avenue. “It holds about 5,000 students. It’s definitely an exciting atmosphere to be in during games.”

As Brown spoke, Lewiston students listened.

He – and Northeastern – had their attention.

‘Really opens their eyes’

Before high-schoolers visit college campuses they often think college is just more high school, said Joan Macri, Lewiston High’s aspirations coordinator, in charge of the sophomore tours.

Once they step onto a campus, “it really opens up their eyes that college is not more high school,” Macri said. They become more interested in college.

On a recent trip to the University of New Hampshire, Lewiston students saw the freedom that college allows, she said. “They see kids sitting around under a tree, walking in flip-flops, saying hello to each other. They see the dorm rooms, the athletic facilities.”

Lewiston High School’s college tour program is a commendable undertaking and “critically important,” said Duke Albanese of the Mitchell Institute, which is focused on boosting aspirations of Maine students.

Many Maine students are the first in their families to go to college, Albanese said. It’s up to mom and dad to help make sure kids are ready for college, but parents who didn’t go may not feel comfortable visiting campuses and pushing their sons and daughters, he said.

Whatever schools can do to help these kids get a taste of the college experience can make a big difference, Albanese said.

“It puts a spotlight on high school learning,” Albanese said. “We see it in the tougher courses students select. They have better conversations with the guidance counselors. It gets it on their radar screen.”

After hearing admissions officers tell them what they’re looking for in future students, high-schoolers better understand that they need to work hard, Macri said. They understand why they need four years of math, three years of lab science and two or more years of a foreign language.

In Lewiston, 70 percent of the students would be the first college generation in their families, Macri said.

“This is a working-class town,” she said. Some students would never tour a campus if not for the school-sponsored trips.

It’s important for potential first-generation college students to see campuses early on, in their sophomore years, said Wendy Ault of the MELMAC Foundation, which gives Lewiston and other schools grants for college visits.

“Sophomores are like sponges,” Ault said. “They see the campus and say, ‘I could fit in.’ We’re finding the college visits are a huge influence with kids going to college.”

Any time is a good time to tour a college, but for sophomores it’s not too late for them to improve their academics and take the courses they need to get into college, Ault said. That becomes less easy in the junior and senior years.

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Liking it

On the Northeastern campus Tuesday, Lewiston sophomores said they got a lot out of the tour. Several said it was their first college visit.

Zachary Plourd liked that it was “fast-moving” and has a good law school.

Alison Masse said she loved it. “Nice dorms, nice appearance on the buildings.” She liked Boston. It’s far enough to be away from home, but still fairly close.

Paul Campbell said he took the tour to get out of school for the day. He was unsure whether he’d go to college. “Right now, I’ve got to get through high school. High school is a big problem.”

Alex Lafreniere said he appreciated the tour. “We learned a lot from it. It seems like this is where I’d like to go to college, instead of a smaller college.”

Seeing a campus firsthand can make a difference for some, Lafreniere said. It could help students care more about school, take the right courses and look into going to college, he said. “Now people will get a better understanding of college.”

Jeffrey Eldridge agreed, saying the campus visits are a great idea. “You get to be in the action.” The tours will change how some sophomores learn back at Lewiston High, Eldridge predicted.

“People who didn’t want to go to college or weren’t thinking about it come here and see how people are having fun. They see the experience. All the food and everything.”

After finishing his Wendy’s lunch, Eldridge and the others climbed back on the bus. They left Lewiston at 7:30 that morning. It was 1 p.m. They still had a long day in front of them.

Their next stops: nearby Mt. Ida and Bentley colleges.

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

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