Program Preps Students For College's Challenges

11/02/11 12:44PM By Jane Lindholm, Ric Cengeri
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VPR/Jane Lindholm
Liam Danaher in the classroom at Peoples Academy in Morrisville

(Lindholm) Welcome back to Vermont Edition.  I'm Jane Lindholm.

Some college-minded seniors have already submitted their college applications for early decision.  But in schools around Vermont, the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, VSAC, is urging twelve and thirteen-year-olds to start thinking ahead to what they might get out of higher education.  And the Start Where You Are program pays special attention to students for whom college isn't an obvious choice.

(Teacher)   "Um, I've got a few people who owe me the water balloon slingshot lab so I'm just going to let you know because every day you're losing points."

(Lindholm) On a bright Friday morning at People's Academy in Morrisville, I dropped in on a classroom of enthusiastic and rambunctious middle schoolers settling down to prepare for a special presentation.

(Teacher)  "This is kind of a class where Liam's going to be interacting with you guys a lot and asking a lot of questions and it's really important that he doesn't have a lot of people talking on top of each other.  It just gets out of hand really quickly.  So please make sure that you raise your hands."

(Lindholm) With that out of the way, a young man named Liam Danaher got started.  He works for VSAC, the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation.  And he's there to talk to students as young as seventh grade about how to prepare for college.  As it turns out, he's not so far out of college himself.

(Danaher)  "I'm from a small town not too far from here called Brookfield.  Anyone heard of it?  Alright, excellent.  We're getting more popular as the years go by.  Brookfield is a really really small town.  My elementary school class had about 15 kids in it.  I went to Randolph Union High School.  Anyone heard of that?  Galloping Ghosts.  I graduated high school, any guesses as to what year?

(Student) "89"

(Danaher) "I was two in 1989.  It's the beard that throws you off, doesn't it?  That's what I've learned."

(Lindholm) Actually, Liam Danaher graduated from high school in 2005.  

He and his sister were the first in his family to go to college.  He graduated with honors from St. Michael's College in 2009.  But it wasn't an easy path.  He had a supportive family but finances were difficult.

And now he's back in communities like the one he grew up in, talking to other first generation students about their hopes and dreams.  And you can be sure, these students already have them.

(Danaher)  "You guys are in 8th grade.  For what it's worth, you're going to graduate high school in approximately 1600 days.  So as you guys continue to approach that deadline, which seems like a really long way off, which it absolutely is, people are going to continue to ask you what you plan to do after high school.  And the idea at VSAC is that we want to be sure you know and you have a plan. Alright, does anyone know what they're going to do after high school?"

(Student) "Probably be a teacher."

(Danaher)  "Become a teacher.  That's brownie points.  Anyone else care to share?"

(Student)  "I'm going to be an architect."

(Danaher)  "An architect.  Do you have to go to college for that?  Yes you do.  Exactly.  Perfect."

(Student) "I want to be a Marine."

(Danaher)   "A Marine?  That's awesome.  Thank you in advance.  Anyone else care to share?"

(Lindholm)  Danaher can relate to these kids.  He had big dreams when he was younger too, though his were perhaps less attainable.

(Danaher)  "When I was in high school all I was really certain of, pretty much for most of my adolescence was that by this point in my life I wanted to be starting tight end for the New England Patriots.  Now, I went to a high school that didn't have a football team and I went to a college that didn't have a football team.  So that dream has kind of fallen by the wayside.  You guys are all way ahead of where I was in 8th grade.  So kudos to that."

(Lindholm)  Danaher keeps the class attentive with lots of questions, and lots of giveaways - pens, notepads, t-shirts - little things he can toss across the room when he gets a good answer.  Everyone angles for the t-shirt.

As his presentation goes on, Danaher gets into more serious territory.  He does an exercise with students designed to shock them into the reality of what life with a minimum wage job will look like.  He calculates the salary and then takes out taxes.  And rent.  And heat.  And car payments. 

(Danaher)  "So so far, this make-believe person right here that works in town for a minimum wage job and lives on their own, we've got a house, we've got some pasta, and we've got a car, and not much else.  We've got to put gas in that car.  We've got to...anyone have a cell phone in this room?  Anyone have any idea how much it costs to have a cell phone every month?"

(Lindholm) Of course, his larger point is to get young Vermonters to think about what they hope to attain, and whether or not they'll need college to attain it.

After one of these sessions, 12 year-old Shawn Lacey, and 13 year-old Rachel Stewart, both from Morrisville, explain how college figures into their aspirations.

(Stewart) "I can't see myself not going to college.  It's just something I have to do to live my life, kind of."

(Lindholm)  "And that's because you want to be a nurse.  So what do you think having that kind of schooling will be able to do for you?"

(Stewart)  "Well, I want to be in the, like, maternity ward.  I can't be without going to college."

(Lindholm)  "Shawn, what about you?  If you want either to do pro-sports or maybe take over your dad's business, why do you think college is important for you?"

(Lacey)  "Well, I think I'd want to go to college so that I would have an easier time doing it rather than struggling.  And if something came up where I wasn't able to do either one, then I'd have something to fall back on."

(Lindholm) These are exactly the kinds of things Danaher and VSAC want kids to start to think about.  It's not an abstraction.  Shawn Lacey says these issues resonate right in his own home.

(Lacey)  "My dad went to college for law enforcement for like two years and then dropped out.  But he wishes he had stayed in.  My dad doesn't really talk about it but if I bring it up he's really open to it.  And he said he still made it without going to college for the full time but he said if he'd went to college it would have been a lot easier off and he wouldn't have had to go through the struggles he went through."

(Lindholm)  But is middle school the right time to start talking with kids about adult worries like getting a job and paying bills, let alone figuring out whether or not they want to go to college, and how to pay for it?  Liam Danaher says absolutely.

(Danaher)  "The sooner you start with students the better off they'll be.  If you wait until senior year or junior year, even 10th grade to start, having this conversation with students, not that it's too late, it's never too late to start.  But the earlier on you catch them the more you normalize it.  And it stops being less of this big scary transition and more of a logical progression.

(Lindholm) Danaher says much of his job is just introducing the concepts and steering students in the direction of resources.

(Danaher)  "The language of higher education is just that.  It's a totally foreign language.  And if you come from a family where it's not commonly spoken about, it's not even part of the discussion; it's not even part of the plan.  And the idea of a lot of the conversations I try to have with students is normalizing higher education.  And just talking about it like it's not that challenging of a progression.  And though you might come from a family of limited financial means there are means available and there are ways to pay for it.  And just because no one's done it before you doesn't mean you can't be the first."

(Lindholm) Liam Danaher says he loves his job.  He benefited from the resources and programs offered by the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation when he was in high school and he wants to give back.  He hopes, at some point, to pursue a career in school guidance or education policy.  But for now he's content encouraging young people to dream big and helping them find ways through the educational system to make those dreams come true.

And we have more about VSAC and the Start Where You Are program at vpr.net.

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