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Jump Starting Success: Whitney M. Young Scholars

By Guy Spriggs

For many high school students, summer is little more than a break from school, offering the chance to relax, travel, or maybe even work at a summer job.

For the talented participants in the Whitney M. Young Scholars Program, the summer of 2014 offered the opportunity to spend two weeks gaining invaluable college experience on UK’s campus as part of a special collaboration between the UK’s Office of Institutional Diversity and the Lincoln Foundation, a Louisville-based institution dedicated to educational enrichment.

Started in 1990 – since becoming the hallmark of the Lincoln Foundation’s educational efforts – the Whitney M. Young Scholars Program prepares academically talented, economically disadvantaged students for future courses in math, science and technology. Each summer, the program offers members – or scholars – in grades 10-through-12 the opportunity to gain academic experience on a university campus as part of a summer institute.

This year’s summer institute at UK was organized by Judy Jackson, vice president for institutional diversity, and Rosalyn Robinson, assistant director of the Martin Luther King Jr Cultural Center. The visiting scholars attended daily classes led by graduate students Cara Peterman (Earth and Environmental Sciences) and Derek Law (Geography), as well as faculty member Rynetta Davis (English).

For Robinson, this partnership with the Lincoln Foundation made it possible to bring together partners from all over UK’s campus, allowing the scholars to really experience life on a college campus.

“It’s not a matter of recruiting the students to UK, but making sure they have access to college, that these students get an education,” she explained. “Our office is here to recruit and retain students from diverse backgrounds and underrepresented identities, and this program is so important because it helps students truly be academically prepared for whatever institution they decide to attend.”

In addition to the aforementioned daily classes, Robinson organized numerous sessions on professional development, providing a holistic approach to fully understanding what college is. Presentations focused on such topics as academic achievement and enhancement, diversity and multicultural awareness, college adjustment, and networking and professionalism.

The visiting Young Scholars also engaged in community service in the Lexington area – working with the International Book Project – and visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

While these activities were enriching for the participating scholars, Robinson was similarly affected by her exposure to the program. “The Lincoln Foundation really works with these students. They are so bright, so smart, so motivated…in many ways they’re neck-and-neck with my college students,” she said.

As part of the program, Robinson and Jackson reached out to the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES) to create a short course promoting majors in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The department was happy to participate, and Peterman saw this as a valuable opportunity to expand how students generally perceive STEM majors and geology.

“Not a lot of people know about geology, and when they think about it they imagine we just sit around and look at rocks,” she explained. “We want them to see there is more opportunity than just biology and chemistry and physics, to see that geology is about oil, gas, environmental issues.”

Peterman incorporated a lot of hands-on activities into sessions of her short course, allowing the visiting scholars to split open and work with real sediment cores in EES laboratories. They also took a trip to McConnell Springs to learn about karst topography and visited the Kentucky Geological Survey Core Barn, where they examined sediment collected from all over the state and left with a box of unique Kentucky rocks.

While Peterman says she was unsure of what to expect from the program, by the end she felt humbled and touched by her experience with the scholars. “I hear about how high school students can be hard to deal with, so I was kind of apprehensive. But these kids were on the ball. They’re the cream of the crop – extremely intelligent, vibrant. When they left it brought tears to my eyes,” she said.

Robinson and Peterman agree that the program is important for demystifying misconceptions students have about college life. As Peterman points out, the shift from the structure of high school to the perceived freedom results in many students running into problems. “They don’t realize there are programs to help them through. This program shows them they aren’t alone,” she explained.

As the visiting scholars settle in to a new academic year, the faculty and staff at UK are looking to the future and hoping for continued collaboration with the Whitney M Young Scholars Program. “I really enjoyed it. It’s awesome to build these connections with the students – the program does so much for us and for them. Our faculty were enamored with the students. It’s a program I hope will continue, and I hope EES will get to participate in it every summer,” said Peterman.