When we began the McKelvey and Lenfest Scholarship programs, we had an idea that the most difficult thing about it was to have youngsters go away to school. In many rural communities and families, going away from home is not a positive thing. It appears to many rural adults that to leave is to reject family and community values and to take a chance that many kids would never return home.
That was the double edged sword. What would prompt a rural kid to look outside his/her own comfort zone and go to a school that would require them to live on campus. The research was not very promising. Rural kids in big schools tended to drop out at an alarming rate ( witness our own son, who eventually went back and finished). Even people in our town of Shippenville wondered why we were sending our children to such far off places as State College or Clark University in Worcester,Mass. Wasn’t Clarion University good enough for them.
That is the question. Why aren’t the local colleges good enough? Why not Glenville State, or Mansfield, rather than Columbia, Lehigh and maybe even Harvard or Yale. That may seem strange to say to those whose experiences tell them that they would want their children to go to prestigious schools, rather than local state schools or community colleges. For those people with the money and the social experiences, there is no question. However for most rural people, whose children would be first generation college goers, it is a serious discussion.
We had a number of failures in the programs. We had tiffs with a number of parents in both programs. The discussions ranged from- when will our child ever come home to what will they eat and how can they make new friends. Sometimes the fear outdistanced the scholarship. In one case, a family was frightened by their minister who told them that this scholarship was a temptation from the devil. The guidance counselor at the school was driven batty since the minister had impregnated his girl friend at the senior prom when he was a student. The young lady refused a $50,000 scholarship.
In another case, in our Lenfest program, where applicants knew that they would be living away from home at a private boarding school, parents tried their best to dissuade their child from applying. In a few cases, the youngster went to the school and did not get out of the car because he parents did not like the looks of the buildings and the students.
Those cases were in the minority. We spent countless hours speaking to parents about how things would be when their child would go away to school. Yes, most of the scholars were homesick. However, we learned a great deal about how one could mitigate all of these roadblocks to a good education.
Guidance counselors were the first stop on the list. Many rural counselors were themselves products of rural high schools and had gone away to college.They had also come back home to work in their former high schools. Sometimes it was a difficult task to open channels of communications with counselors and admissions people in other than local state colleges. Many were thrilled that their students now had the opportunity to go to almost any school that they could get into.
We put a plan into effect that would, hopefully, allow students from these rural areas to feel comfortable going and living at a college.
We first met with the parents of the students and talked to them about their fears. There was a great deal of misunderstanding about college going. The overwhelming number of parents had not left to go to school , not had they traveled far outside of their counties. We talked about how they would feel if there children called and were homesick, or not doing well. We advised that they always listen sympathetically and offer to come to the school and bring Fluffy the dog with them.
One of the biggest problems was boyfriend and girlfriend stuff. We asked our scholars to have the going away discussion long before they left for school, especially if their friend was not going to school him/herself. We lost some to this problem, ,but not many. We were proud that our scholars saw education as a priority.
Some of the students had travelled to relatives in far off places, or had gone on trips with their schools. We made sure that the high schools ( with our funding) took their junior classes to a college no more than 3 hours away. We made sure that the colleges took the kids to dorms, student centers, the gym, the cafeteria ( and gave them lunch) and other non- classroom buildings.
We met with the college presidents, financial aid officers, admissions officers, some rural students and a professor who the students liked. We asked that someone at the school be assigned to be a contact for us and the scholars. That is something that we should always encourage. The first year student needs and adult to go to when they need to- not just an academic advisor, but some one who is humanly connected to the student.
We took students on trips to colleges when they were not able to do it themselves. We went to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, rural schools in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York State. We had the kids understand that they had a choice to go wherever they could get in and like. Many chose a more local state university, others choose prestigious schools both within and without the state.
We kept in contact with the scholars and keep in contact with them even now in the eleventh year of the program We served as sounding boards and counselors, job placement people and substitute parents during that time and sometimes still do. We were there for the kids to use when they needed us. As it turned out, most of the scholars did not contact us with problems or questions. They were pretty much able to help themselves.
We ran a Summer Camp at a college to get the scholars used to living in a dorm and interacting with other college going students. That was our most successful part of the program . Even after 11 years, the scholars still tell us that having mentors who were older talk turkey with them was of enormous help. Some are still in contact with their mentors. They still have fond memories of the etiquette dinner that we had. We would have the scholars dress up and learn the finer points of eating and how to act during an interview.
It was all great fun and we still do some components of it in some ways. Our completion rate is phenomenal, over 70% and we so enjoy seeing the success of all of our scholars.