June 24, 2013 Updated: June 24, 2013 at 9:30 am
A program designed to turn the foreign into the familiar is setting 17-year-old Danielle Schaffer and hundreds of other high school students in southern Colorado on the path to college.
A year ago, Schaffer never had heard of sociology - studying society and how communities develop and function. History wasn't one of her favorite subjects. And she wilted when she had to talk in front of others.
Now, the incoming senior at James Irwin Charter High School is so intrigued with the mechanics of her community that she's become a volunteer. She loves studying history and isn't nearly as nervous as she used to be when speaking in public.
"At first, I thought I wouldn't be too interested in it, but the program turned out to be better and more fun than I thought," she said. "It was a great opportunity. It made me think about how things work."
The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs is one of 10 colleges and universities in southern Colorado taking advantage of a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to introduce the idea of higher education to disadvantaged, first-generation and nontraditional students who have had some success in high school but aren't on the college track.
Entering its third and final year of grant funding, the SoColo Reach project combines college-level teaching with getting to know what campus life is like.
"The idea of the grant is to help students change their mind-set and see that college is possible," said Jesse Perez, associate project coordinator. "Even if they're not interested now, we show them the benefits and the value and try to get them excited."
While many focus on the amount of money they earn, Perez said earning a college degree also can lead to fulfillment, health benefits, advancement potential, and social and cultural growth.
Recruiting is happening now for the pre-collegiate program, known at UCCS as "Jump Start." Perez, a first-generation college student and graduate of Harrison High School, primarily is identifying students in Harrison School District 2 to participate.
About 30 students will be asked to join the free program, he said. Participants must have solid academic skills, with most GPAs between 3.0 and 3.5. About 200 high school students in the 10 participating colleges have taken the program each year, Perez said.
The reasons that college isn't on the students' radar vary, Perez said. Perhaps their parents didn't get a college education, so they're not sure what college is about or how to apply. Some fall through the cracks at high school and don't get needed attention from counselors. Some don't think they could afford to get a degree - so the program includes a presentation on financial aid opportunities for community colleges, trade schools and traditional four-year institutions.
"We try to give the sense to the families and students that they can be a college student, live the life and be successful," said Phillip Morris, the project manager at UCCS.
The program starts in August, with students spending a week at UCCS. They live in the dorms and attend classes on academic readiness, such as test-taking strategies and maintaining motivation. Students listen to guest speakers, get paired with campus mentors and interact with current students to get a feel for the environment.
In the fall and spring semesters, they take one academic class after school and receive college credit, which UCCS funds. Last year's interactive history class involving students acting out historical scenes, and a sociology course that included working at a food bank, were a hit with students, Perez said.
Schaffer will enter her senior year with seven college credits.
"I hope to knock out at least a semester of my first year of college with these courses," she said.
The program helped Schaffer broaden her knowledge, outlook and goals. She now wants to become a surgeon.
"I've had a pretty stable childhood, but I've wanted to be able to support my parents," she said. "Going to college and getting a good career will make that easier."