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At-Risk Teenagers Visit Campus, Experience College

At-Risk Teenagers Visit Campus, Experience College
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They have hopes, dreams and aspirations.

Many of them want to be professional athletes when they grow up. Others are drawn toward the idea of being a mechanic. One wants to be an architect.

Students from the North Tampa EPIC Center visited USF St. Petersburg on Friday to see “how close – geographically, academically, and mentally – they are right now to the USFSP campus and to a college education.” 

The students, currently attending middle and high school, are considered to be at a high-risk of dropping out.

Paul Burke, who works at the EPIC Center, emphasized that many of them had never seen past their own neighborhood before.

On Friday that all changed.

Students arrived that morning and gathered near the bull statue for brief introductions before heading to a classroom.

That’s where the students and volunteers really got to know one another.

Harris Ambush, community liaison for the College of Education told students about some of the challenges that he faced while growing up. For Ambush, soccer was the outlet that helped him excel past the distractions of the outside world.

Motivated Minds: Jason Johnson (left) and Brian Perez (right) are from the North Tampa EPIC Center. They sit in a college classroom for the first time at USFSP. The boys were asked a series of questions about their goals and shown motivational videos that discussed how to achieve them.
Motivated Minds: Jason Johnson (left) and Brian Perez (right) are from the North Tampa EPIC Center. They sit in a college classroom for the first time at USFSP. 

Other speakers reiterated the importance of such outlets that provide a sense of community.

No matter the struggle or story, everyone seemed to agree: college had changed their lives for the better.

After watching a series of motivational videos that focused on concepts such as developing a mindset conducive to success, goal-setting and the power of visualization, students were encouraged to fill out a worksheet that asked them a series of questions.

What kind of student are you?

What are you interested in?

What are two of your opportunities and what are two of your goals?

The students were then asked to share their answers out loud.

“The thing about goals is, you think of them, you write them down and you take action,” Ambush said as he stood in front of the classroom.

“But when you actually say them out loud, that’s also attracting them to you. Saying ‘Hey, I want this’ out loud is literally telling the world that you want that.”

At first, students seemed skeptical. 9th-grader Keenan Meeks was one of the first to volunteer.

students-from-north-tampa-alternative
The boys were asked a series of questions about their goals and shown motivational videos that discussed how to achieve them.

“I want to be happy and have a good life. Who doesn’t want that?” he asked the classroom.

Everyone clapped. The nervous energy in the room quickly dissipated.

“It takes courage to stand up there in front of a class. I’m proud of you guys,” Burke told his students.

One by one they each came up and shared.

“I talk a lot. It’s bad,” said Zachary Lagasse, a 9th-grader. “I’m a hands-on visual person. I can’t sit there and just listen and listen and listen all the time.”

Lagasse plans on joining the Marines some day, but he acknowledges that it hasn’t been an easy road.

“I think about it every morning. I didn’t come from a lot in life,” said Lagasse. “I wake up and look in the mirror and give myself a pep talk. Because some days I do just feel like dropping out of school.”

When asked about opportunity, 7th-grader Reynier Reyes made it clear that he doesn’t take anything for granted.

“One thing about me is that I never give up. If I have a goal, I’m going to make it,” he said.

Reyes is from Cuba and has witnessed firsthand the lack of opportunities that others take for granted.

“Where I come from, you don’t always have a choice about whether or not you go to college,” Reyes said.

After sharing their stories, the group went on a campus tour.

Highlights for the students included the pool, the Waterfront and the basketball court.

Lunch Time: John, Jose Garcia and Christian Jones fill up on their fair share of pizza after completing the campus tour. Many of the students went for seconds and thirds. They said that food at the Reef was much better than what they had at their high schools.
Lunch Time: John, Jose Garcia and Christian Jones fill up on their fair share of pizza after completing the campus tour.

Next stop, lunch at the Reef.

Helpings of pizza, burgers and pasta were dished out with great approval. Some even got seconds.

The verdict was unanimous: the food was much better than the school lunches students were used to back home.

After lunch was a dorm room tour.

The students  bunched together in the room, flopping onto the beds and excitedly staring out the third floor windows, as if imagining themselves living here.

“Visualize it,” Ambush said, repeating the mantra throughout the day.

Then it was time for class.

The students gathered into Peter Rudy Wallace building for an audio-visual class and activity with USFSP Digital Journalism & Design graduate student Lorien Mattiacci.

“What makes a video story interesting to you?” Mattiacci asked the group, giving them 10 seconds to brainstorm.

Students write on worksheets about the video.
First Class: Students write on worksheets about the video in their journalism lesson.

The storyline, subject, plot twists, scenes and a hook were responses that echoed through the room.

Students were then shown a pair of videos and asked to think critically about what made them more or less effective. Students were divided into groups based on those who enjoyed the videos, those who didn’t and those who were neutral.

Each group made their cases for how the videos could or couldn’t be improved.

Lively discussion and lots of laughter filled the room, a far cry from the skepticism and nervous energy that had filled the room just a few hours ago.

“Congratulations everybody,” Burke told them.“You just completed your very first college class.”

group-picture-in-front-of-the-bull
School Spirit: Many of the students were at risk of dropping out and this event hoped to inspire them about how close college can be. Here they gather around the bull on Harborwalk in front of the University Student Center. The event was hosted by USFSP’s College of Education.

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