Getting a first generation into college in S. Jersey

Yen Tran (center, right) from Pennsauken High School hugs Aim High Academy program assistant Nina Mercado as she comes to receive a graduation certificate from the three-week program at Rutgers-Camden.
Yen Tran (center, right) from Pennsauken High School hugs Aim High Academy program assistant Nina Mercado as she comes to receive a graduation certificate from the three-week program at Rutgers-Camden. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 27, 2014

When he saw his Camden Academy Charter High School guidance counselor in a Rutgers-Camden banquet hall on Friday, Joshua Stauffer, 17, immediately walked over and gave him a big hug.

Joe Varga hugged him back. He was proud of his student - and three others he advised - who participated in the three-week college-readiness program that was coming to an end.

"I actually don't want to leave," Stauffer said. "This program is amazing."

Over the last three weeks, 40 South Jersey rising seniors have been playing the part of college students. They have attended classes, lived in the Rutgers-Camden dormitories, and experienced some of the little things they might be able to expect if they enroll in higher education after next year, like messy roommates and dorm rooms.

"Twenty people probably came to clean my room," Ernest Wallace, a student at Winslow Township High School, joked in a speech he was elected by his peers to make during the ceremony.

He thanked his family - for having such a handsome son - and the coordinators of the program, who had helped him over the last three weeks to figure out what he would need to do to be successful in college.

"I'm going to have to stay organized," he said, before adding, "I'm probably going to have to clean my room."

The students, most of whom did not know each other before the program started, laughed, just like they did at the inside jokes peppered in the speeches from other students and the coordinators.

They were a cohesive group that worked together; they had become close.

The students, their families, and the program coordinators for Aim High Academy had come together in the Campus Center to reward the hard work the students had put into the program. The students were all smiles and excited to receive their certificates.

When his name was called, Orin Nester of Lenape High School shot up out of his seat, beaming before pushing his pockets into his khakis, walking to the dais, and giving the coordinators an energetic hug.

Aishah Dukes of Bordentown Regional High School approached with a shy walk and timid smile before accepting her certificate.

Natalie Guzman of Camden Academy Charter High School ran up and gave the coordinators a high five - in place of a handshake - and then a hug.

Varga, smiling from a seat in the back, watched Stauffer receive his honor.

"They took up the challenge, they took that risk," Varga said. "That's what I'm most proud of."

The program takes mostly potentially first-generation college students in South Jersey and exposes them to college-like courses. It gives them a tour of universities including Howard, Rutgers in New Brunswick, and the University of Pennsylvania. They receive preparation for the SATs and are given iPads to work on homework and multimedia projects.

"Students from Camden, for a variety of reasons, they don't get the exposure to college," Varga said. "The families might want them to go to college . . . but they don't take the trip. I think it's a help to the families who can't do it on their own."

The program is free to the students. The $160,000 annual program costs are funded through a state educational grant on a yearly basis. This is the fourth year of the program.

It is targeted at minorities and those in lower-income brackets in South Jersey. The program does not focus only on Camden, according to Wanda Garcia, associate director of the Community Leadership Center, because there are students in need everywhere.

"We've been able to get a good mix of students," Garcia said. "We still have a large achievement gap. The only way to expose them is to provide the experience."

856-779-3237 @clarkmindock

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