Every summer, a group of rising high school seniors travels to the scenic University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, for a three-day intensive college prep boot camp.
This year's camp kicked off Monday. The Chattanooga Times Free Press spoke with students and camp counselors Tuesday after the students had a chance to tour the campus and work on essays.
Many of the students will be first-generation college students whose parents or family members haven't experienced the application process and are unable to guide them through steps like applying for financial aid, scholarships or writing a college essay.
Camp College aims to fill that gap. During their time at Sewanee, students participate in workshops, team-building activities and seminars that prepare them for nearly every aspect of applying for college.
They also get a sneak peek at what university life is like by sleeping in the dorms and eating in the cafeteria.
The program is offered by the Public Education Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming public education in Hamilton County. The camp is now in its 23rd year and has served 1,200 students. It receives significant financial support from the Chattanooga-based insurance company Unum.
"We do all of this to prep them for all the decisions that they'll be making during their senior year," Michelle Caldwell, director of student success for the Public Education Foundation, said in an interview.
Part of that is asking students to think about what kind of college is the best fit for them, Caldwell said.
"We have all of those conversations, again, prepping them for what they will be inundated with when school starts for them in August," Caldwell said.
Students meet with admission counselors and university faculty who come from all over the country to volunteer their time.
"Camp College gives me an opportunity to get to teach kids about the self-discovery that comes with preparing for the next step in life," Hannah Stokes, college counselor at Webb School of Knoxville, said in an interview.
This summer marks her fourth year volunteering at the camp.
"I get to lead lessons on essay brainstorming, on college and career prep, on professional introductions, on being vulnerable in a safe space and then challenging yourself to get uncomfortable because growth comes from being uncomfortable," Stokes said. "And the kids here really love this experience because they feel like it is a safe place to practice those skills."
One important activity for the students is a mock admissions case study for which they play the role of college admissions counselors. They review the transcripts, college essays and GPAs of four imaginary students and decide who to accept, reject or waitlist.
Maurquez Thompson, 17, who attends Brainerd High, said the activity changed his perspective on what college recruiters look for.
"One important factor is GPA," Thompson said. "But it's also being well-rounded. You have to have extracurriculars. (It's not all) about education and academics, you have to have a balance, and that's important."
Beyond educating students about the college application process, first-generation students need extra support and encouragement, said Faith Vaughn, assistant director of admissions at Sewanee.
"For a first-generation college student (it's about) really affirming to them that being a first-generation student is OK, and that it's good, is where I have to start (with them)," she said.
The program has shown success over the past 20 years. One hundred percent of students who have participated in the program apply and are admitted to college, according to the foundation's data. Ninety-five percent go on to their second year, and 75% graduate.
Those numbers stand out at a time when college-going rates in Hamilton County are declining.
Over the past five years, the rate fell from 65.9% in 2017 to 54.7% in 2021, an 11% difference, according to data released by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
"It's our longest-running program by far. And in part, because we've seen how many lives it's really touched," said Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation.
One of those lives is that of Justus Dennis, who attended Camp College in 2019.
"Coming to Camp College was pivotal for me. It was a big ground-making point where I not only made connections but figured out what college is going to look like and why it was important for me to go," Dennis said.
At the time, Dennis was a rising high school junior and participated in the foundation's Camp College program at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennesee, which is geared toward juniors rather than seniors.
He said he had considered attending Lee University but had written it off thinking he couldn't study his passion: music.
"I thought that marching band in college was vital for my experience. I found out that Lee didn't have a marching band, so I pushed it to the side," Dennis said.
But during Camp College, he learned the school offered something else.
"I'm now a music and worship major. Coming here, I found out that music and worship was a major. And I didn't know that before. So, that really changed the tide a little bit," Dennis said.
By the time students leave, they've transformed, Stokes said.
"The students are completely different from who they are when they've shown up two days ago," Stokes said. "They have so much more confidence, so much more energy, so much more excitement to tackle the big journey ahead."
Janice Neal, assistant director of college and career success for the foundation, said she doesn't want her children, as she considers every student her child, to be forgotten.
"The pandemic is making kids fall through the cracks," Neal said, crying. "And I'm determined they won't fall while I'm breathing. So, that's why I get emotional."