Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Eyes Wide Open

From Cheryl Lilhanand—the Columbia Cohort Chaperone
With eyes wide open my cohort of six high school students experienced the unique opportunity to visit major colleges back east during one full week of traveling, followed by a three-week course at Columbia. To say the least, this unusual and unique opportunity truly opened their eyes to new horizons of which they never dreamed, let alone thought possible. As a result they have gained confidence in themselves and proved that students from West Contra Costa USD can compete with the best and are prepared to handle the course load from an Ivy League School, or any other top ranked school in this country.

From the beginning, our pace was extremely hectic. Our week started with an early morning flight to the Big Apple. For some this was their first trip out of the State, for one it was her first plane ride. As we crossed the Queensborough Bridge to enter Manhattan the students were so excited and became wide awake as they caught their first glimpse of the high rises of New York City, which seemed to reach for the sky.

During our first week we went on a whirlwind tour of four top schools. On our first morning we rose early to catch the subway to Penn Station where we boarded our first Amtrak to Pennsylvania. Upon arrival in Philadelphia we met up with the Cornell cohort and together toured Independence Hall. To walk the grounds where our country was founded and hear historical stories was truly amazing. Visiting this area of Philadelphia fit in nicely with my student’s classes, which they would soon attend at Columbia.

As with my previous trips, my cohort was very impressed with UPenn and all the support systems built into their programs. Not only is the campus gorgeous, every alumnus and student we spoke to raved about his experiences there. Also, as in the past, more than one of my six students plan to apply to UPenn. In fact, the ILC has students attending this university now.

Our next day took us upstate to a new college for the ILC campus tour: Sarah Lawrence. Here the students were greeted on a much smaller campus located about a half an hour train ride from NYC. What a difference in size. During the tour we sat in a typical lecture hall—with no more than 30 seats. Oh, the advantages of what small colleges can offer with small class sizes as well as constant individual academic support and counseling. Here again, two of my students felt very comfortable in this setting and plan to apply.

Thursday we headed up the Hudson on Amtrak again. Upon arrival we headed straight to Hyde Park, summer home and Presidential library of FDR. After watching an excellent video on his challenging life and touring his house and gardens, we learned to really appreciate his dedication to the American public knowing the constant battle he had with polio. Then we were on to Vassar. Trying to ignore the near 100º heat, we attended an information session, which was followed by a campus tour. Since there is no graduate program, professors are able to focus their attention on their students. Later, after talking to some alumni over dinner, we were told that Vassar is one of the best liberal arts colleges in the U.S., such pride. On a side note, one of the ILC students I brought here last year will attend Vassar as a freshman in the fall!

Friday we were off to Connecticut to visit Yale. Their information session was the most dynamic of all the schools we visited. We were so fortunate to have lunch with Yohanna Pepa, a former ILCer who attends Yale. She brought some current students as well and afterwards they gave us a personalized private tour. Here again, a couple of my students added Yale to their application list.

In between our site visits we met with current students and/or alumni from UPenn, Vassar, Yale, and Columbia over lunch or dinner. In each case the conversations at the table were priceless. My cohort felt so comfortable asking endless questions about the curriculum, class size, support offered, housing, clubs, overseas programs, etc. I strongly feel the dinners and luncheons were probably just as powerful and informative as were all of the site visits.

After a week of traveling my students finally moved into the dorms at Columbia. Over the next three weeks they experienced student life; such as the stresses of completing assignments on time, massive reading assignments, doing laundry and eating in the cafeteria.

Four students took Constitutional Law and two took Presidential Powers, from Washington to Obama. The Con Law students read many court cases and debated a number of issues. They even had to write a six-page court briefing. Whereas the two in Powers had to complete a major research paper, 20 pages long. Students in both classes had an extensive amount of reading and class participation was an important part of both courses. All six students said they absolutely loved their class. They all repeated that the ILC should continue to offer these two classes to students in the future.

Our district can be proud of all six. They worked hard and took their classes very seriously. Each one loved their class and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge each one presented.   In our daily briefings I could see them gain confidence in a variety of areas from their debating skills to doing extensive research. In short, they blossomed and took their challenges head on ...and succeeded!

The best part about being a chaperone to six high school students for four weeks is seeing them open up; academically, socially, and culturally. My students gained confidence by reaching outward and upward, they met their challenges and took pride in their accomplishments whether it be in a class debate or quiz or paper, their smiles grew bigger. Their conversations changed. Their thinking jumped to a different and higher level.

None of this would be possible without the incredible vision and dedication of the ILC founders: Charles Ramsey and Madeline Kronenberg. Another very important person to the success of the program is Don Gosney. And of course none of this would be possible without the generosity of the sponsors. On behalf of my cohort I want to thank the sponsors for giving my students the opportunity of a lifetime. I know how much this trip meant to each one. In our daily debriefs they often expressed their amazement and gratitude to the ILC program and the sponsors. After meeting and talking to other students in their classes they soon realized our group was the ONLY one supported by someone other than the individual family. My hat goes off to each of you...you are truly making changes in our student’s lives, in more ways than you can imagine.

What more can we ask for? Well, we now hope this cohort, as well as the other cohorts, will share their incredible experiences with other students in our district so they too can reach for the stars with eyes wide open.

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