If their teachers ask what they did for summer vacation, several hundred Wisconsin high school students could answer “opened the door to the University of Wisconsin- Madison.” The summer between their junior and senior years is a capstone project for the long-term goal of preparing to attend the University of Wisconsin- Madison with the help of the PEOPLE program.
They arrived last weekend from Madison, Milwaukee and partner Tribal districts across Wisconsin to participate in a summer college emersion experience. They’ll live in campus dormitories with roommates, be responsible for attending daily classes and evening enrichment activities, eat in the cafeteria and taste the discipline needed to handle college and life away from their parents.
The Pre-college Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE) has helped thousands of students to explore college majors leading to potential professional career options from engineering and medicine to law and business since 1999.
Over the past three summers these Milwaukee high school students – in fact, over the past six summers for Madison Public School students who begin their exposure to campus and careers in middle school – have attended workshops, been tutored, shadowed mentors, and traded down time for more homework and community service to qualify for a tuition scholarship to UW-Madison. This early exposure, along with plenty of work toward academic preparedness and taking required classes for college admission, are key goals of the pipeline program, said PEOPLE Executive Director Jacqueline DeWalt.
In sixth grade, college didn’t even mean anything, said 2013 UW-Madison graduate Thomas Sannito.
His selection as a program candidate had already placed him among the one out of three students who applied and were accepted in the highly selective program.
Family members had higher education aspirations in the past, but his oldest brother didn’t finish high school. Another brother started college but dropped out. Sannito hopes to set a pattern for his younger sisters by earning a bachelor’s degree in political science.
To date, 76 percent of PEOPLE scholars who are admitted to UW-Madison have completed undergraduate degrees. Numbering nearly 250 in all since 2002, these Wisconsin students from poor and/or minority families have in many cases become the first in their families to earn a college degree. In 2012, more than 325 people college scholars were studying at UW-Madison and of those, more than 85 percent were from targeted minority groups, over 55 percent were first-generation college students who were eligible for federal Pell Grants and 45 percent were males – despite statistics showing more than half of males of color in Milwaukee are dropping out before completing high school.
By the time graduation rolls around – first high school and later college — students are thanking their parents profusely for insisting that they enroll in PEOPLE.
“It never gets old,” DeWalt said. Graduation is the day that after more than a decade of parental cajoling, persuading and even insisting that their teenagers stick with the ‘educational adventure’ of the PEOPLE program, they thank their parents through joyous tears as they embark on life with a college diploma.
“The PEOPLE program has been a tangible example of God’s faithfulness to me and my family,” said spring 2013 graduate Dominic Dharam. Even with support, the road is seldom easy, DeWalt said. Candidly speaking, personal discipline, study habits, and life-altering decisions and choices can make or break even the most promising of candidates.
Nicholas Villegas, who took eight years to earn his bachelor’s degree in history, said his victory is no less sweet because it took time to find his source of motivation. He wasted time feeling sorry for himself, Villegas said, but is proud that he never gave up. “If you can’t do this for yourself, do it for someone else,” Villegas said.
Spring graduation keynote speaker Soyeon Shim, Ph.D., Dean of the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology, told graduates that earning a diploma is a proud achievement and that surviving all the struggles along the way were character-building victories.
Success, Soyeon added, is subjective. Growing up in South Korea, Shim remembers how her father would ask his children if they’d done anything worthwhile to deserve to eat before their evening meal. It helped her to develop an essential sense of purpose and consciousness that still serves as a guide, she said.
“Do something every day to justify your existence,” Soyeon said.
For Bryson Green of Milwaukee, leading the University Gospel Choir as director for 4 years was inspiration. Leading his peers in a final praise performance at his PEOPLE graduation was a perfect closing statement for his college days.
“Over the years, we have become more and more intentional in our efforts to expose and provide access to the full breadth of opportunities available at this university – in essence – our goal is to graduate true badgers,” DeWalt said.
There are key experiences all “Badgers” should have as part of their Wisconsin Experience, DeWalt said, which includes quality education, research experience, global experience and exposure such as study abroad and internship experiences, campus and/or community service experience, and access and exposure to a host of other opportunities that develop solid leadership skills.
For those in their final year of training – high school juniors – the six week summer session includes internships with campus and community partners, while learning how to complete the college application process required to be accepted at UW-Madison. Participation in the PEOPLE program is a personal choice, not a guarantee that admission will follow.
“PEOPLE scholars complete four to six years of getting their heads and hearts ready for college,” Dewalt said. “That’s already longer than many Americans spend on their entire college career. So it sounds like they’re serious about their education and not viewing any part of the program as an entitlement.
They’re earning their college preparatory training and scholarship every step of the way.”
PEOPLE College students have studied abroad in South Korea, Chile, France, London, Ireland, Singapore & Malaysia, Argentina, Uganda, India, Vietnam, China and Japan.
“However, the outcomes of our students’ experiences vary by student since we serve as a support system to the student – as they make their own individual choices – in sync with their own passions, gifts, and interests,” DeWalt said.
“Therefore, each group of graduates has garnered different sets of knowledge skills and abilities as they matriculated through UW Madison. In most cases, however, what is consistent – is that most of our students never could have dreamed or imagined exactly where their membership in the PEOPLE Program – since middle or high school – would take them.”
In addition to studying abroad, PEOPLE leadership involvement at the college level includes working with more than three dozen campus and community organizations and interning or researching with over two dozen organizations and departments.
In the past three years, the PEOPLE program has expanded its scope in the Milwaukee area to include partnerships with Will Allen’s Growing Power program and mentoring with key schools like Morris Marshall Charter School for the Talented and Gifted through support from Great Lakes Higher Education.
Former PEOPLE scholars are now completing graduate degrees law, medicine and counseling just to name a few areas.
Now celebrating its 14th year of helping to prepare students for admission to and successful graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the PEOPLE Program will officially welcome its 2013 incoming freshman class on Aug. 2 at the close of the annual summer program.