Hundreds of students cheered them on, and smiles lit up the faces of three fifth-graders as they received college diplomas from Western Washington University.
Though the diplomas were fake, the excitement was real for Joselyn Orozco, Collin Averill and Jazmin Bermudez.
“I was so excited, I nearly jumped up and down,” Jazmin said.
Nearly 900 fifth-graders from 11 schools in Skagit and Whatcom counties crowded Western on Tuesday, Oct. 21, envisioning a college future. The Compass 2 Campus program, now in its sixth year, led these students on a tour of Western and introduced them to college mentors who will help guide them to a university.
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Cyndie Shepard, director of the Compass 2 Campus program, spearheaded a similar program at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where her husband and current WWU President Bruce Shepard was chancellor. While visiting an elementary school in that area, she asked a child what he wanted to be when he grew up, and the fifth-grader replied he was going to prison, just like his dad. At that point, Cyndie Shepard decided to create a program called Phuture Phoenix that gave elementary students role models and encouraged them to pursue a college degree.
When Shepard moved to Bellingham with her husband in 2008, state policymakers urged her to create a program like Phuture Phoenix in Washington, and now Compass 2 Campus involves four community and technical colleges in addition to Western. Central Washington University is adopting the program starting this fall.
District superintendents in Whatcom and Skagit counties choose elementary, middle and high schools for the program that they consider to have the most at-risk students. Funding comes primarily from grants and private sources.
“If you are in college, chances are your parents encouraged you,” Shepard said. “These are the kids that typically don’t have that encouragement.”
One fifth-grader, Daniel Sandoval, said he could see himself at Western in the future.
“It’s a big school. I think I’ll do better here,” Daniel said.
The fifth-graders were given a chance to talk to college students from various departments and learn about everyday life on campus in one of 100 different tours. One tour, for example, had students visit with anthropology or archaeology majors. Ryan Desrosiers, president of the anthropology club, said the goal is to get students engaged in subjects they might not normally think about.
“It’s an opportunity to see a discipline they’re not exposed to in their everyday lives,” Desrosiers said.
The mentorship continues after the fall event. WWU students can enroll in a three-credit class to become Compass 2 Campus mentors and spend at least four hours a week with elementary school students as they move through their education, Shepard said. At least 340 college students are enrolled in the class, but the demand for role models is much higher.
Students in Phuture Phoenix have shown a modest increase in high school graduation rates, but Shepard said it’s too early to tell if students in the Compass 2 Campus program will go to college at a higher rate in Washington. She suspects they will, judging from the reaction of the fifth-graders when they leave the campus.
“They leave literally hanging out of the bus windows,” Shepard said.