By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY â€” Justin Spurley, Marietou Paye and Conetrise Holt were the top students of their graduating classes at Atlanta public high schools. When choosing colleges, they could have gone where their friends were going â€” the University of Florida or Georgia, or even accepted generous scholarships to Emory University in Atlanta.
But these three students chose Middlebury College.
Their parents had never heard of the school. Their friends called it â€œMiddle-of-nowhere-bury,â€? but with the support of the year-old 21st Century Scholars Program, created by Atlanta native and Middlebury College alumnus Graham Balch, these students applied to a range of northeastern liberal arts colleges they never would have considered before.
The Atlanta public schools are struggling to see their students through college, Balch says, and they attribute this to the lack of gap-financing in southern colleges and universities.
When Balch heard this, he began searching for a solution. He knew northern schools provide scholarship packages that breach the gap, offering financial aid to students whose parentsâ€™ income is too high to qualify them for federal aid, but too low to cover the cost of tuition.
But Atlanta students rarely look out of state for higher education. Last year, 1,400 students graduated from Atlanta public high schools and only one enrolled in a liberal arts school in the Northeast. To fill that gap, Balch contacted a few colleges in New England and worked through a program called Project GRAD to get these schools to agree to provide full scholarships to students who applied and were accepted through his 21st Century Scholars program.
â€œAll I wanted to do was give them the opportunity that I had at their age,â€? said Balch, who said his main concern was to build a relationship between Northeastern colleges and Southern public schools so that Atlanta students, and hopefully students all over the South, will continue to consider these schools over the years.
Balch encouraged top students to apply, pitching the process as a challenge, an option they may not have known was available to them. â€œThese are amazingly talented kids,â€? he said, â€œbut they donâ€™t have the resources to attend schools like Middlebury. Itâ€™s not a question of helping them, itâ€™s a question of giving them an awareness.â€?
His efforts have been successful so far.
Eight students from three Atlanta public high schools enrolled at Amherst, Bowdoin, Hampshire, Holy Cross and Middlebury colleges this fall. And Atlanta students still in high school this year are preparing to take the challenge themselves. According to Balch, the majority of this yearâ€™s seniors took the SAT last spring and even completed their college essays early, preparations that rarely happened in years past.
Paye, who spoke no English when her family moved to Atlanta from Senegal five years ago, says she chose Middlebury because she was â€œlooking for a challenge.â€?
When she visited the school last year, her student host dragged her along to a college party that really wasnâ€™t her scene, but even though she was uncomfortable and unsure, she didnâ€™t let the party get her down.
â€œI donâ€™t have to do it their way,â€? she said she thought to herself. â€œThe whole point of going to a school like this is the opportunity. I can make it better for myself.â€?
Holt dove right into her liberal arts education with a freshman seminar on â€œBalancing the Student Body through the Liberal Arts and the Martial Arts.â€? Planning to major in psychology and sociology with a minor in education, she is also excited to be practicing Aikido, a Japanese martial art, in conjunction with her studies.
Holt says it was the Vermont scenery that caught her attention first. â€œItâ€™s so beautiful here,â€? she said.
Balch took the programâ€™s eight students camping in the Cohutta Wilderness Area in Georgia to prepare them for their transitions to the Northeastern college lifestyle. Other students at their new schools would return from the summer having trekked through the Rocky Mountains or camped in the Adirondacks.
Balch wanted to make sure that when his students, who had never done anything like this before, met their new roommates and looked at photographs of their outdoor adventures, they would be able to say, â€˜Sure, Iâ€™ve been camping. It was in the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi river.â€™
In the Blue Ridge Mountains, Balch talked to the students about budgeting their time and writing effective essays. He also led them in a series of racial role-plays based on situations he and his friends had experienced in college. The students, all African-American, poked fun at Balch, who is white, when he pretended to be black.
â€œWhat happens if you are walking next to a white friend past the black table at lunch and your black friends call out to you, â€˜Look at that white kid go?â€™â€? he asked them. Defensive at first, they discussed the different ways they could approach their friends, make it clear that they have the right to be friends with whomever they want. â€œOr what if your roommate from St. Johnsbury, Vt., has never touched a black personâ€™s hair?â€? Balch suggested. The students thought this was crazy. â€œWell, who hasnâ€™t?â€? they responded.
â€œWe donâ€™t want to dance around these topics,â€? Balch said. At schools like Middlebury College, where only 21 of the 655 freshmen are African-American and the 21st Century Scholars are the only students in that class from Georgia, the topics of race and culture are easily avoided. But Balch believes that any sort of diversity, when brought out into the open and discussed, enhances the college experience. â€œItâ€™s part of the education for everyone,â€? he said.
In their first weeks of school, Paye and Holt donâ€™t seem too concerned with these issues. Sitting in the college Juicebar, wearing Middlebury t-shirts and trying to keep their cell phones from ringing, theyâ€™re simply a couple of giggling freshmen, thrilled by the novelty of living away from home, making new friends and taking classes that keep them up all night.