countdown to college
Countdown to College participant Somayah canoes during a field trip.

There is lot more than just 300 miles between K-Town and the Saint Mary's University campus. "They actually have grass here," said Alexis Cummins, 14, who makes her home in that gritty west-side Chicago neighborhood.

She quietly describes her home as "somewhat safe," where people "are nice - if you know them." A world far different from the trimmed lawns and quiet hallways on the Terrace Heights campus.

Alexis' daily life is lived in neighborhoods where "it's stupid to be smart, where it's cool to be mean," her friend and teacher Rhonda Greer, 30, said. A place where, when you leave your house, you "put on your biggest frown, your hardest look," because when you're on the streets "you have to be the hardest one there."

"People have to know not to mess with you," Greer said.

It's a place where dreams often die quickly and young.

"It's sad," Alexis said. "I know so many people who could do something with their life, but they choose not to."

Alexis, and 24 other ninth-grade students from K-Town, and neighborhoods like it, spent two weeks in July on the Saint Mary's campus preparing themselves to make a different choice.

The students are among the first participants in Countdown to College, a part of Saint Mary's First Generation Initiative - a comprehensive, focused effort on the part of the university to put a university degree within the grasp of young people for whom it would otherwise be an impossible dream.

The vision guiding the initiative is a natural outgrowth of the university's affiliation with the Christian Brothers, said Brother Ed Siderewicz. It carries forward the spirit of the orders' founder, John Baptist de La Salle, who dedicated his life to the education of "the children of the artisans and the poor."

In Alexis' neighborhood, fewer than one out of four young people will graduate from a public high school. "We have a society where some children cost more; where some children are worth more than others," said Jane Anderson, SMU dean of education.

But experience has shown that simply enrolling young people in a university is not adequate. Of every 100 black students who start a degree program, only 38 will finish within six years. "Access without support is not opportunity," Siderewicz said.

Countdown to College is designed to provide that support years before the students register for their first university class.

Each summer, from ninth grade to the end of high school, the students will spend two weeks on the SMU campus, all expenses paid, studying and getting acclimated to an environment that is unfamiliar to them and to their families.

Edith Galvez, 22, program coordinator and a first-generation college graduate, said overcoming parental skepticism, even fear, can be a significant hurdle for bringing young people into the program and onto campus. She said that when she announced her intention to enroll at Saint Mary's, her mother was very concerned about her as "a Latina girl at an all-Caucasian school five hours away from home."

"She told me, ‘You're going to a whole different world,'" Galvez said.

To introduce parents to the different world their children are entering, they and their children arrive on campus together to spend two days getting acquainted with Saint Mary's campus and staff.

Galvez said the university has drawn on her experience and the challenges she and other first-generation students face in designing the Countdown to College experience.

The prime focus of the two weeks on campus is reinforcing and upgrading the students' academic skills. The students spend most of their day in class - five to seven students with two teachers, one a Saint Mary's faculty member, the other a teacher brought to campus from one of the middle schools participating in the program. "We target writing, vocabulary, math and reading," Anderson said.

After class, there is time for fun, games and field trips, but also an hour of supervised study time every evening.

Siderewicz is confident that over four years Countdown to College will give the young people the boost they need to succeed.

Not only are these kids talented, he said, they are "survivors ... inner city tough ... street smart ..." - qualities that when bolstered with academic preparation and a familiarity with the college environment will make them "incredibly prepared for college."

And through the First Generation Initiative, Saint Mary's is prepared to make that preparation pay off. Through the initiative, each year Saint Mary's is committed to providing 15 full scholarships, including transportation and spending money, for first-generation students. "These kids are going to soar," Siderewicz said.

"This is all about sparking dreams," he said, "Not just in the kids, in all of us. We're all in this together."

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