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Wingate University, UCPS provide pathway to college for young teens

by Luanne Williams

On Friday, Wingate University announced its intention to invest more than $2.5 million in a group of 20 local eighth-grade students – promising the inaugural class of Wayfind Scholars a full-tuition scholarship if they successfully complete the free college-access program, a new partnership between the University and Union County Public Schools.

“Scholars, take a look around the room. Each of the people here is rooting for you to succeed,” said Tim Myers, Wingate’s outreach and support coordinator and the director of Wayfind, as he welcomed the students from East Union Middle School and the Health Sciences Academy at Monroe Middle School to a kick-off luncheon at the Batte Center. “This is celebration number one. We will soon be celebrating small victories as you go through high school, celebrating your high school graduation and your acceptance to college.”

Wingate University President Rhett Brown said the Wayfind program, in which Wingate students will meet with scholars after school twice a week, had its beginnings some 15 years ago. While attending a College Board conference, he learned that the national recommendation for school staffing is one guidance counselor per 200 students and that, at some high schools, it is closer to one per 700.

“That’s when I realized that colleges and universities have a responsibility to partner better with high schools as they support students,” Brown said.

When he was inaugurated as Wingate’s president in 2015 he began to think about ways to expand a small high-school mentoring program already in existence. About a year later, he found an enthusiastic partner in Andrew Houlihan, who had just taken over as superintendent of Union County Public Schools.

“I could sense his energy around this subject, and we decided, ‘Let’s take a swing at this. Let’s lift students up as early as eighth grade and put them on a journey,’” Brown said.

Wayfind mentors will help students create a road map for college planning, lead discussions about career options and college costs, and help students explore resources for SAT and ACT prep. They will also take mentees on college visits and help them learn to write a top-notch college-application essay.

Houlihan said the University and the school system had come together to think differently about accomplishing the number one job of educators: “removing barriers for our kids.”

He said that Wayfind was not about preparing eighth-graders for high school but about preparing them for success beyond high school and that he believes the program can serve as a national model.

“Monroe and East Union families are making history today,” Houlihan said, as he thanked the University, the Union County Board of Education, the business community and local elected officials who have supported Wayfind.

East Union Middle student Tessa Stewart read the essay she wrote requesting access to Wayfind and told the crowd she truly understands that few students get the opportunities she will be afforded as a mentee. “Having someone to guide me, share their personal experiences and walk me through the basics is such an honor,” she said. Stewart and the other inductees were summoned to the front and presented with Wayfind polo shirts to mark their entrance into the program.

Bashawn Harris, UCPS director of middle schools, urged Wayfind scholars to “be bold, be courageous and be your best.”

“I am a proud member of the school system and a proud graduate of Wingate University,” said Harris, who earned his doctorate in educational leadership in 2012. “Both institutions continue to provide opportunities to students who work hard and push forward.”

Feb. 22, 2019