Students interested in attending Camp College should visit www.pefchattanooga.org/register. Applications must be submitted by April 21. Contact Janice Neal for more information at Janice@pefchattanooga.org or 423-668-2423.
The Lillian L. Colby Charitable Foundation
Sewanee: The University of the South
Buck & Tonya Gentry, in memory of Madge & Sam Reynolds
Source: The Public Education Foundation
For years, Deonte Carter knew he wanted to play college soccer and study sports management after he graduated from Tyner Academy.
Carter is a hard worker and was raised by his grandma to be independent, but he is the first in his family to attend college and wasn't quite sure how to pick a school and maneuver the application process.
But last summer, right before the start of his senior year, Carter attended the Public Education Foundation's Camp College. He said the program gave him the extra boost he needed to be accepted into Tusculum College and prepared to start classes there this fall.
"Camp College was a good experience," Carter said. "It motivated me and now I feel more ready."
For 18 years, Camp College has offered more than 850 low-income Hamilton County students a leg-up in preparing for college, as the students aim to be the first in their families to earn a degree. The program takes 50 rising seniors each summer on a two-and-a-half-day retreat to Sewanee: The University of the South. During the trip, students connect with about two dozen college admission officers from across the country who offer guidance, support and information about different schools.
Data shows that 95 percent of Camp College grads enroll in college, and 65 percent complete a degree within six years, which well exceeds the national and county average.
Because of the program's success, the Public Education Foundation is looking for more funding to expand Camp College, allowing 75 students to experience the program each summer.
"It's a program that works," said Stacy Lightfoot, PEF's vice president of college and career success. "The more students that can go, the more students that are impacted."
And students agree.
Saasha Jones attended Camp College back in 2005 before enrolling at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Jones now works as a benefits specialist at Unum, and said she may not be where she is today without Camp College.
"It was the first time college actually seemed like a reality for me," she said, adding that it was one of her first trips away from home.
Jones attended Camp College with a handful of classmates from Brainerd High School, and said the experience shifted lunchtime conversations from prom and football games to college applications and the benefits of different universities.
Camp College also helped them craft better application essays, connect to resources and ensure they were receiving the maximum amounts of financial aid, Jones said. And college advisors stayed in touch after the summer program to offer advice and support.
"Every student deserves to be able to go to Camp College," Jones said. " Camp College has figured out the magic recipe."
During Camp College, students get to stay in Sewanee's dorms with a roommate and eat in the cafeteria. They wake up early like they would for college classes and attend a series of hands-on sessions. The sessions provide students with tips for their applications and also a heads-up on what to expect once they start college, as the focus of the program is not just getting kids into a school, but helping them finish.
Lightfoot said each Camp College student gets paired with a college admissions officer who provides one-on-one advising on their transcript and helps them write a compelling admissions essay.
"Many of these students have no idea that their stories are important," Lightfoot said. "They are either coming from backgrounds or populations where it's the norm to be underrepresented."
Brandi Smith, assistant admissions director at Emory University, has been a faculty advisor at Camp College for 11 years. Smith and the other admissions officers don't come to recruit for their schools, but to help students discover and prepare for a college that is the right fit for them.
Smith said she looks forward each year to interacting and supporting students who are hungry for knowledge and eager to take advantage of every opportunity.
"College access is so important," Smith said. Too often students of color and low-income kids are not represented on college campuses, which doesn't benefit anyone, she added.
Camp College students are not looking for empathy or sympathy, Smith said, and her job is to help students advocate for themselves and tell their stories of resilience.
Each year, the group of Camp College students collectively earn about $2 million in financial aid, and 98 percent of the students receive aid or scholarships, according to Public Education Foundation data.
Dan Challener, president of the foundation, said the point of Camp College is to give students the chance to think more broadly about their future.
"It's a program that provides extraordinary opportunity for students that may not know what's possible," he said.
María Ramírez attended Camp College in 2015 before her senior year at Red Bank High School, and said she fell in love with Sewanee and thought for the first time about applying to a private college.
Ramírez said she loved walking around the campus and looking at the architecture, and Sewanee's students seemed well- rounded and happy.
"I saw that I wanted to be like them," Ramírez said. And while being at the school she learned that Sewanee values diversity and wants students like her, too.
Now, Ramírez is finishing up her freshman year at Sewanee and double- majoring in environmental sustainability and music.
Chyna Terrell, a senior at Tyner Academy, is preparing to go to East Tennessee State University this fall to study video game design.
It took some convincing for Terrell to decide to attend Camp College, she said, but now she's glad she went.
"I now know what to expect [in college,]" she said. "I now realize I can do this."
Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.
The headline of this article was changed to more accurately reflect the location of the camp.