Stairway to success

Stairway to success

Rowan’s Pre-College Institute preps freshmen for college and life beyond it.

Their backgrounds, ethnicities and religions are diverse, but incoming freshmen through Rowan’s EOF/MAP Pre-College Institute have lots in common – and intellect, drive and passion to spare.

The students in Rowan’s 42nd annual group to go through the summer program, many of whom come from economically disadvantaged homes, are, more often than not, the first in their families to seek a college degree.

All must be accepted into the program and, once they start, it is anything but a standard college experience – up to 16 structured hours a day of classes, guidance and planned activity.

Earning up to six college credits during the six-week program, PCI students learn from undergraduates who’ve navigated the program before them, successful PCI alumni, Rowan faculty, and one another.

“A lot of us don’t have a whole lot at home,” said Joshua Popper, 17, a law and justice major from Egg Harbor Township. “This program is helping us learn from other people’s experience.”

Aspiring journalist Ally Hodgson said as the PCI has progressed this summer instructors and faculty have made it clear that much is expected of the students. During PCI and throughout their years at Rowan they are expected to study from two to three hours for every hour in class and to exhibit positive social behavior, dress and attitude.

“When I first heard about PCI I thought it would be lame,” said Hodgson, 18, of Galloway. “But I was wrong. When the summer ends we’ll know where everything is, what is expected of us, and have a support system of 150 new friends to fall back on.”

Penny McPherson-Barnes, director of Rowan’s Educational Opportunity Fund and Maximizing Academic Potential program, said it’s hard to overestimate the value of early exposure to incoming freshmen – from the rigors of college classes to avoiding the temptation of their newfound freedom.

"The Pre-College Institute is an opportunity to jump start their college career,” said McPherson-Barnes. “Over six summer weeks they get the lay of the land, interact with faculty and administrators, make dozens of new friends and earn up to six credits. This all happens before other freshmen have their first day!"

Total immersion and a safety net

The 2011 PCI class has 146 students, all of whom live on campus during their summer stay and must abide by some pretty strict rules regarding dress and behavior.

Among the many guidelines, they may not carry cell phones, cannot wear short-shorts, offensive t-shirts or flip-flops, and must attend a strict regimen of courses and activities – one that keeps them busy most days from 7 AM until around 10 each night.

In between meals, classes and activities, there are group information sessions on leadership and healthy choices, and 24/7 access to student and professional staff members trained to handle virtually any crisis.

“Among other things, we’re trained to make observations,” said Tasiah Ragland, an English/communication studies major, one of 32 student staffers who’ve been through PCI and are living and working among PCI students this summer.

Student staffer Lanre Odunlami, an entrepreneurship/marketing major, said there are dedicated “talk to me rooms” at the plush new Rowan Boulevard Apartments where PCI students stay so virtually any issue – from homesickness to an interpersonal dispute – can be moderated and resolved.

“The Interpersonal Skills Component’s mission statement is to exhale with a purpose,” Odunlami said. “We’ve been through this program so we know it. We talk to them about fears and challenges but if students are upset, facing issues beyond our ability to resolve, they’re referred to a professional.”

Been there, done that, learned from it

Impressive as it is that student mentors return to PCI to guide others, there are professional staff who returned year after year, even decade after decade, to remain a part of the program.

Angie Alston, a special education teacher in the Pennsgrove School District, is at PCI this summer for her 19th year.

“There’s a feeling that you’re helping someone, and it’s a wonderful feeling,” said Alston, one of five “para-professionals” who live among and mentor the students in the apartments.

Alston herself entered the PCI in 1990 after graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden.

“I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the EOF/MAP program and it really helped me stay in line,” she said.

Thomas Smith, now in his 17th year, said he’d done all the tough-guy stuff in his youth and spent four years in the Army before even considering college. The former Army instructor is now a teacher at Camden’s Promise Charter School and said he relates to the tough kid who’s on the fence about education.

“These are young kids, but some of them have the problems of a 40-year-old,” he said. “When I was in this program I had a mentor, William H. Myers, who had a way of disciplining without you knowing it. Bill made you see yourself as other people see you and that’s what I try to do.”

Syreeta Primas, a first grade teacher at Lees Avenue School in Pleasantville, returned to PCI this summer for her 9th year because of the friends she’s made through it and the impact it had on her.

“College wasn’t something I thought I could do,” she said. “But this program was a blessing. When you see alumni of this program come back, and now they have a Master’s degree or are a lawyer or a doctor or a judge, it’s an amazing feeling.”

Among the many highlights of the program, which this summer runs from June 25 to August 5, is a weekend Leadership Conference in July in which PCI alumni return to mentor students and connect with old friends.

Milan Ahye, another student staff member, said PCI helped her develop skills to not just finish college but to gain acceptance to graduate school and pursue the career of her dreams.

“I’m here because I want to be a resource to incoming students,” she said. “My goal is to see every single one of them graduate.”

Rowan’s EOF/MAP program provides financial and educational assistance to students from low-income families. Students seeking entre into the PCI must meet financial and educational requirements including N.J. residency, low family income and a high school diploma or GED. For more information, visit the EOF/MAP web site or call (856) 256-4080.