“College 4 Me”: Middle School Students Make a Campus Visit to HGSE

Prevention Science and Practice students like me at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) have a super cool opportunity to intern with schools and community organizations serving K-12 students throughout our entire school year. I was lucky enough to run an after school course at Gardner Pilot Academy called College 4 Me, a dual-generation program with a focus on providing seventh and eighth-grade students from socioeconomically underprivileged backgrounds, as well as their parents and families, with information related to college and career readiness as students prepared to enter high school. We also worked to provide opportunities for students to see themselves within a college environment and develop a college-going identity, which our program director Dr. Mandy Savitz-Romer and her colleague Suzanne Bouffard define as “the state of mind in which youth believe that college is right for them, see themselves as ‘college material,’ and aspire to obtain a college degree” in their book Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success.

One of the highlights of our College 4 Me experience was a field trip to HGSE where my students got to interact with graduate-student volunteers who collectively represent a variety of college experiences across higher education contexts in both their undergraduate and master’s level study. Many of the middle school students were lucky enough to explore Harvard prior to this year through a community partnership with the Harvard Ed Portal’s Project Teach program, and were looking for more opportunities to ask targeted questions about college students’ personal experiences in higher education, particularly from college students of color. My students surprised me with the questions they came up with ahead of time. Some specific examples include:

  • What were your expectations of yourself and of college before you got there, and how is that different from what actually happened?
  • How do you balance a social life with academics?
  • If you ever wanted to dropout of high school or college, what made you stay?
  • What careers crossed your mind when you were applying to college, and what have you decided on now?

To put it plainly,  my babies wanted to know the answers to some tough questions that get at the heart of who you can become in college and how you persist through some of the perceived difficulties that clouded their judgement about whether or not they could make it to and through college. And somehow– right in the middle of finals– HGSE volunteers from student organizations including but not limited to Comunidad Latinx, The HGSE Black Student Union, Prevention Science and Practice, and The Undocuallies Initiative made magic and answered the call. My students got to eat lunch with Harvard graduate students and ask their burning questions in small groups. As the event organizer, it was heartwarming to not only see the volunteers’ willingness to be vulnerable and transparent about overcoming challenges, but also show their humanity to students through smiles and laughter.

Middle school students and HGSE graduate students at the College 4 Me campus visit

The students had a really good time and overall found the visit to be very helpful, especially considering the range of experiences that were shared about the sometimes elusive “college experience.” Some of my favorite quotes from their written evaluations describe an increase in students’ confidence to attend a school like Harvard. For one student in particular, the impact of the event goes back to her personal interactions with the volunteers who she remembered as “really nice” and “interesting.” When reflecting on her thoughts about the campus visit, seventh-grader Isabella Smith expressed gratitude. “I want to meet them again. They made me more interested in college.”

Personally, I’m super grateful to have gotten the chance to learn from my students throughout this year and watch them connect with such a wonderful set of volunteers, ultimately leaving with a deeper sense of confidence in pursuing higher education.

janayBlog and photos by Janay Graham, Prevention Science and Practice (Practice Strand), Ed.M. 2018