Recruitment for college doesn’t have to wait until high school

By Alison DeRito, School of Education graduate student, Bridges to the Future elementary education pathway

It isn’t everyday that a student-teacher has the opportunity to share her love for her alma mater with nearly 70 fourth graders.

In the “Bridges to the Future” pathway at the College of Education at UMass Amherst, graduate students are placed in public schools in the Greenfield, Gill-Montague, and Orange, Massachusetts, school districts. I was placed in Sheffield Elementary School in Turners Falls, Mass., for my spring practicum. “Bridges” is unique in that it places a special emphasis on a community-service learning project. When my mentor teacher, fourth-grade teacher Michele Hazlett, told me that the fourth grades would be attending a performance at the Fine Arts Center at UMass Amherst, I was thrilled. When she asked if I’d like to tour the students around the campus for the whole day, I was honored and hopeful that I could turn this field trip into something special for my community-service learning project.

I casually approached my supervisor, Dr. Ruth-Ellen Verock-O’Loughlin of the Department of Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies at the College of Education, with the idea of making something more of this field trip to UMass Amherst. Instead of just a tour around the campus, I began thinking about where to bring the students to really make them feel like they were attending college for a day. I wanted the students to see themselves as future college students – an idea that seems so farfetched to most 10 and 11 year olds – until you put them on an actual campus. Dr. Verock-O’Laughlin enthusiastically encouraged me.

The day at UMass Amherst began at a performance by the National Acrobats of China at the Fine Arts Center. These young acrobats were the highlight of the day for many of the students, but there was much more to come. I had contacted Peter Brooks, the manager of the Hampshire Dining Commons in the Southwest Residential Area of campus. Although the students would be bringing their own lunches, we needed a large space to eat, and with snow still on the ground, eating by the campus pond was not an option.

Peter Brooks, whose wife is a school teacher, went above and beyond for the Sheffield students. As we walked to the dining hall from the Fine Arts Center, I stopped the students intermittently to discuss the buildings in the area and I gave a brief history of each place. We passed by many academic buildings in the center of campus, as well as Garber Field, Boyden Gym, the Army ROTC building, and we saw the 26-story library in the distance.

When we arrived at the dining hall, I told the students that we were getting the royal treatment – the dining hall staff was refrigerating all of our lunches! Then I saw the milk and orange juice cartons, and those huge chocolate chip cookies all UMass Amherst students crave! Once the fourth graders saw those cookies, their eyes did all the talking. The Hampshire Dining Hall staff accommodated Sheffield School in such a way that the students couldn’t help but feel special on this day. Nathaniel wrote in his thank you note to Peter Brooks, “I enjoyed eating in your dining hall. I think it was the nicest, cleanest place in UMass! I liked the food. Wonderful drinks and friendly people. Everybody was so nice. Amazing day.” Jemma wrote: “Thank you for making the cookies. They were really good! I wish I could have two! How did you make them so good? I saved a little so I could have some for later. That’s how much I love them!”

Before the students could get too antsy, we headed down the stairs and through the Southwest area of campus. As we passed by my old stomping grounds, the John Quincy Adams Tower where I resided as a resident assistant for three years, I discussed what it was like to live in a residence hall. “Miss DeRito, you lived here?” they asked as they craned their necks to look up to the 22nd floor. Although I had mentioned to my students before that I lived at UMass Amherst, they truly didn’t understand what I meant by that until they saw the dorms with their own eyes. “Yes, most students live in these buildings with roommates; in fact, over 500 students live in this one building right here,” I told them.

Clearly, talking about college is one thing, but being there and seeing it up close is an experience of its own. Daniela and Hailey wrote to me later that day, “I never knew that you could live in UMass. We would not know so much about UMass if it was not for you.”

We began our descent to the McGuirk Alumni Football Stadium. Having contacting head coach Kevin Morris a few weeks earlier, I knew he had a great group of athletes set up for the students to talk to. I had to slow the pace of the group a few times as the level of anticipation had reached its peak. All 70 of us filed into the bleachers and met the most wonderful 11 athletes: Ke’mon Bailey, Armando Cuko, Brandon Collier, Bryan Fisher, Nick Haag, Kyle Havens, Ray Jones, Stephane Milhim, David Ramsden, Warren Wilson, and Scott Woodward. Coach Matthew Chapman (Assistant Offensive Line Coach) introduced himself, and the players did the same, mentioning their hometowns and majors. The students asked the coach and players questions they had prepared earlier that week. I was amazed by the maturity of the young students. A smooth 30-minute conversation took place between the fourth graders and the players. The athletes stressed how hard they work day in and day out; they had been up since 5:30 AM on this day for winter conditioning. Many youngsters idolize professional athletes but don’t realize the hard work that goes into reaching that point. “Many of us have two majors on top of the mandatory workouts and practices each day,” said one athlete.

Much to my surprise as well as that of the students’, we soon found ourselves being escorted into the locker room, a place that not many non-athletes ever step foot in. A table with hundreds of posters and markers had been set up by player Armando Cuko. The athletes signed shirts and shoes, posters and notebooks, and even arms. A bond had definitely been formed between the students of Sheffield Elementary School and the UMass Amherst athletes. Jacob wrote in his letter to the coaches and players: “That was the coolest time of my life. I’m so glad I got to meet you and the team and I hope you win more and more games. I was a Giants fan but now I’m a UMass fan. You’re the greatest team ever. I am going to that school.”

By 1:45 p.m., it was time to board the busses and head back to reality. As we drove back to Turners Falls, I reflected on our day. I thought of places we should have visited and things I should have said, picture opportunities I missed out on and other important people we could have met. While there was only so much we could squeeze into one afternoon, I am hopeful that the experience at UMass Amherst was one that the students will remember forever. I hope they feel like they can walk around the UMass Amherst campus and attend football games with their families. I hope they say, “Hey, I know him!” when they see a familiar athlete. I hope they can point out some of the buildings we discussed when they drive through Amherst one day. Most of all, I hope that these fourth graders now understand that college is a place where they can be in a few years, whether it be UMass Amherst or any one of the dozens of colleges around this area.

By stepping foot on the UMass Amherst campus, the students in Ms. Guy-Greene, Ms. Hazlett, and Ms. LeBlanc’s fourth grade classes had a small taste of college life. Melissa wrote: “When I’m older I want to go to UMass! If I could grade the field trip 1-100, I would give it a 99 because at the end we had to leave.”

When I heard the chatter about wanting to attend UMass when they’re older, I knew that I had succeeded in my objective for the day.