Students aim to become first in their families to achieve college degrees [photos]

Students aim to become first in their families to achieve college degrees [photos]

July 24th, 2017 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

Tyner High School senior Taniya Nichols, left, and Brainerd High School senior Ja'mes Johnson work during their small group session during Camp College in Spencer Hall on the campus of the University of the South on Friday, July 21, in Sewanee, Tenn.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

Gallery: Students aim to become first in their families to achieve college degrees

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Ja'mes Johnson was adamant Eli should be admitted into college.

"He worked hard," she said with a raised voice. "He kept his grades up while working two jobs."

Cade Shortt was open to considering Eli but absolutely sure John should not be accepted.

"John is lazy and entitled," Shortt said, adding that while John may have received good grades, his references said he wasn't dedicated.

Their conversation and dozens more like it took place between Hamilton County high school students Friday as they read four mock-college applications and decided who to admit into a hypothetical college.

The activity was just one of many that 72 students participated in last week during Camp College, a three-day program designed to help prepare low-income students to be the first in their family to earn a degree.

Johnson, a rising senior at Brainerd High School, said playing the role of a college admissions officer was eye-opening.

"It's going to help," she said. "Now I know what to expect and what colleges look at when they look at me."

Johnson wants to earn a degree in education, planning to one day lead a school system. In her college essay she plans to include that fact, and also her clean disciplinary record, extracurricular activities and a list of the honors classes she's taken.

"I see now that people really look at that stuff, and it can make a difference," she said.

For 19 years, Camp College, which is run by the Public Education Foundation, has taken more than 900 students to stay at Sewanee: The University of the South, giving them a taste of college. The days are packed with sessions and activities that provide students help preparing for college and tips on what to expect once they start. The program is not just about getting kids into a school, but helping them finish.

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. And each year, Camp College students collectively earn about $2 million in financial aid, and 98 percent of the students receive aid or scholarships.

During Camp College, students are paired with college admissions officers from across the country who come and give one-on-one advising and mentoring. Friday afternoon admissions counselors helped students craft personal, compelling essays.

Taniya Nichols will be a senior at Tyner Academy this fall. She said the extra support is really helpful and thinks it will help her clench additional scholarship dollars.

"It's also just fun being here," she said. "It makes me even more excited for college."

Shortt, a rising senior at Ooltewah High School, wants to attend Sewanee and jumped at the chance to visit the campus again and meet with some of the university's staff.

"I can't apply until August," he said. "But I've got everything ready to send, I'm just getting some more advice."

Jessica Hardy, a former admissions representative at Sewanee and now a college guidance counselor at a high school in Memphis, told students Friday that college is their ticket to whatever they want to do with their lives. She shared personal examples about the ways her degree has expanded her opportunities, and those of her family.

"Look for a college that is going to change your life," she said. "That is what education is supposed to do."

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.