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First Look, first inspiration

Through First Look — a first-of-its kind program launched by Carolina’s Visitors’ Center in 2008 — middle school students are receiving an early glimpse of college life.

For many of the students at Northeastern Randolph Middle School near Liberty, N.C., college isn’t necessarily perceived as an option.

“We come from a very low-income area of town,” said seventh-grade teacher Tonda Hinson. “With most of our kids, their parents are farmers and most don’t have any aspirations to go to college. They don’t have parents that push it because they plan on them just finishing school and working in the family business or on the farm.”

To pique her students’ interest in college, Hinson and other teachers have been turning to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for inspiration.

Through First Look — a first-of-its kind program launched by Carolina’s Visitors’ Center in 2008 — middle school students are receiving an early glimpse of college life through classroom discussions and an on-campus tour led by UNC-Chapel Hill students.

Research has shown that people who are not exposed to a college atmosphere by middle school are less likely to seek a college education. First Look is meant to solve that potential gap by introducing higher education concepts to middle school students from across North Carolina — many of whom live in low-income counties with little exposure to college.

The program is another example of the University’s commitment to access and affordability, said Missy Julian-Fox, founder of First Look and director of the Visitors’ Center.

“Designed specifically for middle schoolers, First Look adds a crucial link between a student’s middle-school choices and the path to college,” Julian-Fox said. “Especially for potential first-generation college students, the program introduces the core concepts of higher education — academics, arts, athletics, student life, campus living, global education and career pathways.

“First Look helps at-risk students understand why there’s a long-term reward for academic achievement, using our campus to illustrate the general experience of college without promoting any specific university. Research now shows that high school is late to start on a college track. Students need motivation, time and academic rigor to fully develop and be ready for college. Our hope is to get them excited and thoughtful about how they can pursue higher education well before high school.”

By bringing middle school students to Chapel Hill, First Look aims to begin preparing the participants early enough to tweak their academic habits and begin working toward the goal of attending college.

The program starts with discussions led by current Carolina students in University classrooms. The Tar Heels — who have completed nearly 10 hours of training — hold small group meetings to talk about how college is a possibility for everyone, how college creates career options, and ways to pay for school.

“We talk about the difference between price and cost,” said Daniel Dinkins, a program coordinator. “You may see the price of UNC being $25,000 per-year, in state, but through scholarships, grants and work study, the cost can be lower.”

Having current college students lead the program is a major benefit for the middle school classes, Julian-Fox said.

“They have a voice middle schoolers relate to. They bond together easily and quickly,” she said. “Many of these kids visiting campus have never bumped up against someone that goes to college. The experience becomes real, tangible, achievable.”

Hinson said hearing the information from actual college students drives home the lessons teachers have preached in the classroom.

“We say ‘these are skills you’ll need when you get to college,’ but it makes such a huge difference for them when they come to campus and listen to college kids tell them not only what college is like, but ‘I wish I had studied more then I was in middle school,’” Hinson said. “They’re so enamored by them. It’s like they’re star struck.”

After the small-group discussions, Carolina students lead the classes through a campus tour with stops in classrooms, the Carolina Union, libraries and various landmarks including Kenan Stadium.

“We want them to feel like they can go to college,” Dinkins said. “We want to make sure that they can put themselves in the shoes of a college student.”

And although First Look is held on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, it is meant as a starting point for the students’ college visions, whatever university they may ultimately choose.

“Do they get to love Chapel Hill and Carolina? Yes, because they had an enlightening experience here — people were welcoming, they were inclusive, they talked and walked with actual college students that were happy they were here,” Julian-Fox said. “But this is not meant as a Carolina recruiting tool – its meant as a higher education recruiting tool.

“Our goal is to give these students tools so that whatever college they choose to visit in the future – whether that’s here, or somewhere else — they know to ask ‘Where is your student union? How to I find the undergraduate library?’ Because of First Look, because they have been exposed to those things, they know to ask.”

The program has become so popular with area teachers that it hosts more than 4,000 students from across the state each year. To bring the program to even more students, Julian-Fox is focused on developing the initiative so that other universities can launch their own First Look program.

“Our goal has been not only to get up to capacity on this campus, but to perfect and create templates to share with other college campuses,” she said. “Our goal is to create a First Look experience within an hour and a half of every middle school.”

Hinson has seen first-hand how the program can energize middle schoolers.

One of her students — an immigrant from Guatemala whose parents don’t speak English – had no desire to attend First Look trip to Carolina and had no intention to apply to college, she recalled.

Then he arrived in Chapel Hill.

“It made a world of difference to him,” said Hinson, whose students often spend the bus ride home after a First Look experience talking about college. “It just excited him.”