Hispanic students from East Hall Middle School were encouraged last month to set their sights on higher education.
Twenty of the school's top Latino students recently took part in a one-day program called "Gear Up For College" at the University of Georgia.
For the past several years, the program has brought Hispanic eighth-graders to UGA to show how the students can prepare for college and what their best options are in areas such as programs of study and financial aid.
Only a handful of schools are invited to participate, East Hall Counselor Lecrisha Peyton Webb said.
"I believe we are the only school that was asked to be there three times in a row," she said. "The kids always leave a lasting impression. They carry themselves intelligently and always get compliments."
The program isn't intended as a recruitment tool for the college, but a way to boost excitement and confidence among students, Webb said. The middle schoolers "experience" a day as a college student and talk with current Hispanic UGA students about what to expect.
Throughout the day, UGA staff gave the students ideas about finding scholarships. Some were surprised to learn they could earn multiple ones, Webb said.
"After it was over, there were looks of relief. A lot of them know they are very intelligent but they never thought they could afford it," Webb said.
Eighth-grader Vanessa Anaya said it was her first time stepping on a college campus, and described it as "its own city." She said she hopes to be college-bound one day, and was interested to learn what kind of help was out there.
"You can even get a scholarship for being left-handed," she said.
Webb said East Hall, and many other schools in Hall County, are urging students to consider college and career options early on. Each year, the school offers a college and career week to teach young people about college preparedness, how to fill out an application and ways to dress for success.
Students are also provided with a career inventory, to help them determine what classes they might need in high school.
Webb said UGA staff were impressed with the early emphasis and that many of the Hispanic students were challenging themselves academically. Several are already enrolled in high-school level courses.
"Starting as early as sixth grade, we try to get students thinking about what they're going to do after high school," Webb said.
The students were given UGA backpacks and T-shirts, and toured the dining hall, media center and some of the lecture halls. After the trip, the class sent back thank you notes.
Webb said most of the students are considering pursuing a college degree, including Luisa Munoz who wrote in her thank you note, "The whole trip was a mesmerizing experience and I definitely hope this isn't the last time you'll be hearing from me. Make sure you don't forget my name."
Webb hopes to send students through the program next year as well.