Vassar Today

A Jump-Start on College

By Amy Boggs ’07

For the second summer in a row, a group of high-school seniors spent a week on campus in August, taking courses, writing papers, and bridging the gap between high school and college.

Students from the 2006 summer program learn the art of making Oreo cookie ice cream (Oreos, cream, and liquid nitrogen) from Vassar chemistry majors.

“We wanted them to be immersed in college life and college-level academics so they will know what’s expected of them — and what resources are available to them,” says Leslie Dunn, professor of English and one of the proponents of the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity’s (SEO) Scholars Program.

SEO was founded to assist talented students of color in New York City’s public school system who do not have access to the resources and guidance necessary to prepare them for selective college admissions. The Scholars Program, funded by a grant from the Teagle Foundation, goes beyond admissions, however, supporting its students throughout their college careers and making the transition to college as seamless as possible. Dunn was drawn to the program in part because it was a way to open the dialog between Vassar and secondary schools. Often, students who don’t have access to prep classes are thrown for a loop when they enter college because professors have very different expectations from their high-school teachers.

The Vassar/SEO program seeks to give students “pre-college training,” with readings and classes; this year the focus was on the Civil Rights Movement. “It was an excellent opportunity for them to explore a small classroom setting and get an in-depth view of a subject they only touched on in high school,” says Shannon Snead, director of SEO’s development department. Every day the students attended a two-hour reading discussion and an hour-and-a-half session with multimedia sources, led by professors Kiese Laymon (English) and Lisa Collins (art), as well as writing labs taught by Dunn and Ays Necioglu ’03.

The program also introduced students to the less scholarly side of campus life. During lunchtime, representatives from the dean of admissions, the dean of students, and other college offices spoke with them, and Vassar students on campus for the summer also made presentations, held a science fair, screened student film showing, and organized dance performances. SEO students were responsible for their own time, with little supervision. “It gives them a sense of empowerment [and helps them realize] this is the kind of freedom you have on a college campus,” says Marc Pongnon, assistant director of the Scholars Program.

“There’s a wide range of things they would never expect in high school,” adds Snead. “The end result is that a lot of students use this experience to shape how they view the college process, and they take it back to their peers, sharing their new knowledge.” While three past scholars are joining the Vassar class of 2011 this fall, the Scholars Program isn’t about recruiting or even about the students getting into college. “[For Vassar,] it isn’t just about admissions; it isn’t just about access,” says Dunn. She believes that the program is about an “obligation to the community we live in. No educational institution should be an island.”

Shana Kent ’06, who helped the students in the writing labs in the program’s first year, says the program is beneficial all around. “It gives the students a taste of college life, which they are clearly more than ready for; and for teachers, any chance to engage students who are eager to learn, and to touch their lives in some way, is an invaluable experience. The students I worked with during that week definitely gave me memories that I still think of fondly, and lessons I will never forget.”