Lauren Merrell got a little turned around heading to her first college class at the University of Toledo.
"It was real scary," she said. "We had the map and were freaking out trying to find the building."
Rest assured, she did find the Health Education Building and wasn't even late for the health class because she gave herself an hour to get there just in case.
It's not an uncommon story from a traditional college freshman, but give Lauren credit - she was only 14 and still in high school at the time.
Now a few short years later, the 18-year-old knows her way around UT just fine with 63 college credits to her name when she graduates from high school today.
Lauren is the valedictorian of the inaugural class of Toledo Early College High School, which is located at UT's Scott Park campus and has students take their first two years of college courses while in high school.
"It's a big deal for my family to come here and be able to go to college," Lauren said.
She's a first-generation college student.
Her mom didn't finish school because she had a child young, who died young, and she didn't go back. Her dad and her older sisters graduated from high school but didn't go to college.
To see how far she's come since middle school is "crazy," Lauren said.
"I think it's so amazing we get this opportunity because it really is life-changing," she said. "I don't think I would have blossomed and found my career path without it."
That career plan includes becoming a full-time college student at UT this fall in the pharmacy program.
She hopes to complete the six-year doctorate program in five years because she already has so many college credits completed.
Lauren was spending the last couple days finishing her valedictorian speech for the 2 p.m. ceremony today at Nitschke Auditorium on UT's main campus. She and 41 other students will be the program's first graduates and all their classmates will be there to watch.
"Our entire school will be there and that's important because when you actually see it, it becomes a reality," said Robin Wheatley, principal of Toledo Early College High School. "It's not some distant thing that will happen at one time."
Each graduate got 18 tickets for family and friends and everyone is so excited that there have been families using up those and asking if they can get more seats, Ms. Wheatley said.
"I feel really positively in this class and it makes me more confident in all future classes," she said.
Lauren and the other graduates were the first in the program, so the school has learned from their experiences and made a few changes to make the transition to college courses less frightening, Ms. Wheatley said.
Toledo Public Schools Superintendent John Foley said the program has gotten positive results and graduation will be a culmination of a lot of hard work.
"The kids here who are graduating are the pioneers," he said. "They took a leap of faith so to speak, a challenge, and for those who stuck with it, they have college credit to show for it."
Most students graduating today will do so with 50 to 60 college credits under their belt, Ms. Wheatley said.
Mr. Foley said it's important for the district to provide options like Toledo Early College High School for students who are looking for something different.
"As parents exercise their choice and we know one size doesn't fit all in today's education world, so it's certainly important for us to not only have these programs but see that they're successful," he said.
Most of Toledo's other high schools will hold graduation ceremonies June 3-5.
Toledo Early College High School got started four years ago with a $400,000 grant from KnowledgeWorks Foundation.
The district took more than 250 applications for the first class, accepted 100 students, and about 40 of those completed the program to graduate today.
The program recruits students who are of an ethnic minority, English as a second language learner, qualify for free or reduced lunch, or who are a first generation to attend college.
Lauren said she's proud to be among that first class of graduates of the school and said it's unreal what she and her classmates have accomplished in a short amount of time.
"It's overwhelming when you sit and think about it," she said.
And when she arrives on campus as a true college student, Lauren won't need a map.
Contact Meghan Gilbert at:
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