Growing up in a working-class Boston neighborhood, Leide Cabral's path to college wasn't always clear. "I wanted to go, but I didn't know how that was going to happen," the high school senior says. She attended an underperforming middle school and remembers her class making the math teacher cry almost every day. Now she plans to major in math at Hamilton College next fall in Clinton, N.Y.
Leide credits an after-school program that got her thinking about college early. Every year, a Boston-based nonprofit organization called Citizen Schools takes dozens of eighth graders to tour a variety of college campuses. They sample college classes, eat in the dining halls, and get application tips from admissions officers.
Getting students from underserved communities to think about college early is crucial, says Diana Cordova, director of the Center of Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity at the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C. "We're trying to catch them younger, because by the time they get to high school, it may be too late," she says.
Campus visits are one of the activities funded by Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or Gear Up, a federal program that gave an average of $2.7 million to each of 36 states in 2005. Gear Up grants for high-poverty middle and high schools aim to raise the number of low-income students enrolling in college.
A 2003 study by The Century Foundation, a public policy research center in New York, found that only 3 percent of students enrolled in selective institutions of higher learning were from the poorest socioeconomic quarter, compared with 74 percent from the wealthiest.
In a 2005 book, "Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education," the authors reported that enrollment figures are comparatively low for first-generation college students. They looked at 19 of the nation's most elite colleges and universities and found that only about 6 percent of their students were the first members of their families to attend college. Nationally, however, 38 percent of all 16-year-olds have parents who did not attend college.
John Werner cofounded the Citizen Schools program in 1995. The on-campus experience, he says, lets students "taste and feel the prize that they're going after." Seeing science at the college level, for example, opens their eyes to life beyond the worksheet. "It's like seeing in black and white, and then suddenly they see in color," he says. Mr. Werner hopes to roll out structured college visits to all of the program's 24 school sites nationwide in the next few years. Students in the program already visit schools such as the University of Vermont and Brown University, as well as various community colleges and design schools.
On a Citizen Schools trip to Hamilton College last month, almost 90 eighth-grade students from Boston public schools handled snakes in a biology class, learned some German, and went on the air at the radio station.
Some felt immediately at home. Eighth-grader Gricelda Martinez says she used to dislike science. But now her face lights up when she describes the snake she saw. She remembers coming to the United States from Honduras when she was 6 and says school here was difficult. She had to start in kindergarten because she didn't know English. After her visit to Hamilton, she is considering applying and says she wants to be a veterinarian or a "science person."
Experiences like these might help students overcome the challenge of being among the first in their families to go to college.
"To see themselves possibly existing in that environment can be in some ways a little bit foreboding, but in some ways it can be really inspiring," says Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University Teachers College.
In addition to getting a better sense of college life, the eighth-graders learned a little about how to get there.
Nicole Robertson, assistant dean of admissions at Hamilton, gave the students the inside scoop on what admissions officers look for. Many students don't realize that taking care of siblings outside of school counts as an extracurricular activity, she told them, and admissions officers want to hear about this kind of life experience.
"I see so many kids who just don't even think college is an option," Ms. Robertson says.
This year's freshman class at Hamilton is 18 percent minority students. Tuition plus room and board and other expenses at the school, which has 1,750 students, is $41,660 for the 2005-06 school year.
Phyllis Breland, director of financial aid, scholarship, and mentoring at Hamilton, says the college values cultural diversity. As more students like Leide go to colleges like Hamilton, she says, the easier it will be. "They'll reach back and pull someone with them," she says.
One Citizen Schools alumnus and a Hamilton College junior, Mike Allen, says he made house calls in Boston over the summer to try to get parents to enroll their kids in the after-school program so they can do the campus visits. "It shows them a little piece of their future," he says.
On a cold, clear day in upstate New York recently, Leide's dad got his first look at his daughter's future college. Jose Cabral walked through Hamilton's new science center, where chemistry and geology professors welcomed Leide by trying to recruit her to their fields.
Mr. Cabral brought Leide to the United States from Cape Verde in 1989, when she was 4. "Right now, I'm speechless," Cabral said. "Of course, I'm more excited than she is."
Cabral reflects on how far Leide has come to win a full four-year scholarship. "In the back of your mind, there's only so much you can do as a parent with no money," he says.
Leide says she feels the pressure that her success has brought but thinks she can handle it. "I have so many people waiting and hoping that I succeed," she says. The campus trip helps eighth-graders envision it for themselves, she adds. "It's put the idea of college in their heads, and that's the purpose."