Kids tour campus to prepare for their futures

Kane Loukas

Sixth-grader Baon Kong peered up at Amundson Hall and grinned.
“I would probably like to go here one day,” the little girl said. “The buildings are really big.”
Baon was one of about 140 fifth and sixth graders to visit the University Thursday. The students spent their time touring campus. A majority of the kids come from low-income St. Paul households or communities where exposure to a college education is a rarity.
For the second year in a row, Nancy Shermer, a Hayden Heights Elementary fifth-grade teacher, and University faculty members organized the field trip to get the children thinking about college.
Before starting their day, speakers who addressed and welcomed the kids advised them to start preparing and working toward a higher education. Lists of possible majors and the high school classes necessary for admission were given to the youngsters.
“Attending college is not really something that they’ve thought about, or their parents,” said Jay Samuels, professor of education psychology. Nearly 45 percent of the students are Southeast Asian. In total, about 70 percent of the students are minorities, a portion of which are bused in from different St. Paul neighborhoods.
“Many of these kids haven’t been in a restaurant before and had to be taught how to act in a cafeteria,” Samuels said, referring to how radical even the idea of visiting a university is for them.
College aside, the elementary students have to learn about their choices in life. For the event’s organizers and the parents involved, realizing a child’s potential is only part of the struggle.
“We are thinking, all of us, of having our children educated in our community,” said Yohannes Melekin, a father of one of the 11-year-olds in the group. “The main thing is money, money. I try my best, but I have three children. This is the main problem.”
Although Melekin and his wife have good jobs — he’s a researcher for a local company and she works as a night shift nurse at a community hospital — they’ve only been able to siphon a small amount into a mutual fund for college.
“A lot of parents don’t know a lot about financial aid, that they don’t need to have the money in the bank to get their children into school,” said Paul Hawkinson, a fifth-grade teacher at Hayden Heights. “Sometimes culturally, (college) just hasn’t been a part of their lives,” he said.
The kids were told about the Minority Encouragement Program, one of several state-supported programs for parents without the resources to cover college bills. The sheer cost of college scares many parents away from encouraging their kids to seek out a four-year degree, Hawkinson said. Pamphlets outlining the basis of financial aid and scholarships were handed out to the kids.
Due in part to University President Mark Yudof’s enthusiasm over last year’s elementary school visit, University officials assured the children they can count on financial support to fund their four-year degree. That’s provided they have “decent” grades through high school.
The students got their feet wet on Thursday. What teachers are hoping is that the parents and communities will take responsibility in getting their kids ready for college.
“The home is where it’s really going to happen, where parents are reinforcing the work ethic,” Hawkinson said.