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Kaila White graduated from Whitmer High School on Saturday, June 12. The following Monday morning, she returned to the classroom, attending orientation at Owens Community College. "I was out for a day and then right back in again," she said.
Kaila is one of 60 students registered for the Bridge to Success program, a free summer session offered at Owens for recent high school graduates from northwest Ohio.
The students are from nine Toledo public high schools.
The program offers high school seniors the chance to pursue a free education at Owens.
Owens provides participants with textbooks, meal vouchers, and TARTA bus tokens. Their sessions run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays. Before lunch, they receive instruction in math, reading, and writing as well as a "boot camp" to familiarize them with student life.
During the afternoon, they participate in enrichment activities including a critical thinking workshop, a mentoring session, and electives offered by the fine arts department.
"I thought it would be a good way to get a seven-week advantage over the other freshmen," said Ms. White. "I'm the type of person who gets my confidence through experience."
Jourdan DeAniello, recently graduated from Waite High School, said of the program, "It's not that I wanted it. I needed it."
Ta'Sheila Rowser, of Scott High School, will be busy this summer. When she's not at Owens, she will be working an internship at the Teamsters' Local 20. Saraya Parnell, her classmate at Scott, is also working a job to earn some money on the side.
Most of the program's participants belong to the first generation of their family to seek a college degree. Two exceptions are Mr. DeAniello, whose mother is currently pursuing a degree in accounting at Owens, and Ms. Parnell, whose mother is pursuing one at University of Toledo.
For many, Owens is the first stop on an educational trajectory. Mr. DeAniello, for instance, wants to move with his mother to Tennessee to pursue a degree in education. Ms. White wants to move to California to pursue a degree at UCLA or Berkeley in music management.
As aspiring professionals, these teenagers see a college education as a virtual necessity in the modern economy.
"Now in 2010, going to college is like going to high school," Ms. White said. "You either do it, or you're weird."
Said Mr. DeAniello, "College to me was not optional at all. My mom told me, 'If you don't get a college degree, you will be working three jobs just to stay under my roof.'•"
Support from their families has been critical to these teenagers' taking the initiative at Owens. Mr. DeAniello is the youngest of eight grandchildren in his family, and the last without a high-school diploma, a fact that made him feel "a lot of pressure."
When he graduated from Waite, all eight grandchildren were present, along with four aunts from four different states, to congratulate him.
Ms. Rowser's grandfather drove her to school every day throughout high school. Every day, he told her to be good, and that he loved her.
When she graduated from Scott, they shared a moment together, and both started crying.
Family support like this can be crucial when students receive so little affirmation from their peers, many of whom avoid textbooks like the plague and would never think of giving up a day of summer vacation.
During the orientation session, James Jackson, associate director of multicultural student services at the University of Toledo, urged the Bridge students not to lose their nerve even if they feel like they're going it alone.
"If you're the only one here out of all your friends, then you're here for a reason," Mr. Jackson said.
Having the courage to go where family members and friends have not is an essential virtue for many of these students. Ms. White calls it "Lewis and Clarkin'," after explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who undertook the first expedition to the Pacific Coast in 1804.
"They didn't know what they were doing," she said. "Nobody had ever been there before."
For Ms. White and others, the feeling is exhilarating.
"You are now in the driver's seat of your own life," she said.
"That's so scary," Ms. Parnell replied.
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