Students Albani Wyatt, right, Paul Bell, center, and Aaliyah Parrish participate in a college admissions workshop at the Public Education Foundation's Camp College at The University of the South on Friday, June 21, 2019, in Sewanee, Tenn. The camp provides resources to help students with their admission and transition to college.

Photo Gallery

Camp College

Walter is the son of a single mother and works 30 hours a week as an assistant manager at a grocery store.

Tessa is African American and the team captain of her high school lacrosse team.

Kira served on her school's Honor Council, but her school counselor said she coasted through some of her more challenging classes.

Stephen is the son of immigrants who own their own restaurant, and he has excelled in Advanced Placement classes.

These four "students" are imaginary, but they are based on real college applications that Hamilton County students analyzed this week to decide who they would admit if they were admissions counselors.

The students read application essays, looked at transcripts, compared grades to courses taken and analyzed teacher recommendation letters.

"Her essay is all over the place," said Aaliyah Parrish, a rising senior at Brainerd High School, of one of the mock applications during the small group session. "The prompt asks you to talk about one belief, not a bunch of them."

Albani Wyatt, a rising senior at Sequoyah High, agreed.

"She's kind of contradicting herself," Wyatt said. "What does she say she wants her major to be? Is she really going to stick with that, because she can't stick to her beliefs?"

The activity was one of several experiences that nearly 100 students have taken part in this week through the Public Education Foundation's Camp College program.

The program, now in its 21st year, unites economically disadvantaged students from across Hamilton County and aims to equip them with the knowledge and resources they need to successfully apply, enroll and complete college.

Stacey Lightfoot — the "Mother of Camp College," as PEF President Dan Challener called her Friday, and PEF's vice president of college and career success — said the activity and the program itself are meant to expose students to opportunities and give them insight into how the college admission process works.

"If you don't see it and aren't exposed to it, you don't know," Lightfoot said. "[The program] is intensive. We're building skills and helping students understand how admissions works and preparing them for the transition."

The case study activity was led by faculty members of the camp, including admissions counselors from dozens of colleges and universities and PEF employees. The students debated which of the four mock students would be accepted to their university and unraveled how college admissions counselors think.

"Most counselors in public schools are not trained on college counseling," said Brandi Smith, a college counselor at Marietta High in Georgia. "They're dealing with social and emotional issues, case management, and a large number of students, whereas private school counselors often come from college admissions."

Smith said that meant that at schools where the counselor-to-student ratios are often in the hundreds to one, students don't always have access to many resources.

The three-day program is made possible every summer thanks to the Public Education Foundation, private funding and donations from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UBS and the Lillian L. Colby Charitable Foundation. Every year, it has been hosted at Sewanee: The University Of The South, and dozens of members of the Southern Association for College Admission Counseling make time to work with the students.

Many of the students are first-generation college students and haven't had a parent or family member navigate the application process and all its intricacies — applying for financial aid, choosing a major, researching scholarships, etc.

Through team-building activities, resume- and essay-writing workshops, and seminars on how to do an interview or identify business casual or professional clothes, Camp College staff hope to fill those gaps.

Every student is also paired with an admissions counselor who meets with them one on one to go over their transcript and help them write a compelling essay. It helps students identify their own potential, Lightfoot said.

"I don't think a lot of students realize how powerful their stories are," she said.

In two decades, the program has shown significant success. Of its more than 1,100 participants, 100% apply for college and 96% have enrolled. Of those who enroll, 77% graduate within six years.

Cade Sterling, a sophomore at Sewanee, is a testament to that. He participated in Camp C0llege in 2017 and received a scholarship to attend Sewanee after he graduated from Ooltewah High in 2018. Now he's working in a science lab on campus.

"Camp College gave me the actual opportunity to be on campus and to have really intimate conversations with an admission counselor," he said. "I got really lucky."

Everett Jolley, director of recruitment at Tennessee State University, agrees and touts the significance of the program. He has been volunteering at the camp for 18 years. He said students get the "raw" version of him, instead of the bow tie-wearing serious director of recruitment they would usually encounter.

"This program as it is is one of the best student-centered, advocacy programs I've ever witnessed," Jolley said. "I get to build relationships here in 48 hours that it takes me four years to do at work."

Dennis Fortson, a rising senior at East Ridge High, said he hopes Camp College will help him identify available opportunities and his own potential. He also said he was a little bit nervous about starting college and the independence he would have.

"With that independence, you need to make your decisions and whether it's right or wrong, you have to stick with that decision," he said.

Challener congratulated students Friday for showing up for the camp and taking steps toward changing the "trajectory of their lives."

"This time next year, every one of you will be admitted to college. The 2017 class, every single one of them was admitted and every single one of them enrolled. And I have no doubt that's in your future," Challener said. "And if you show up the second year, research shows that you will earn a degree and will change your life."

Contact Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.