Gail Jones was talking with her second-grade students at Jones Elementary School about her daughter going to college when she realized they "didn't have a concept at all" about higher education. "The kids just don't really understand that beyond high school, there are options," she said.
She approached the Jones School Council with the idea of field trips to acquaint students with college life. The council checked off on the idea and, for the first time last year, featured a trip for fifth-graders to the University of Georgia in Athens.
Last week, fifth-graders returned to UGA and spent the day touring the campus, learning about its traditions, history and programs, and mingling with the school's famous mascot, Hairy Dawg. "In seven years, I want to hear where you have decided to go to college," said Cheryl Dozier, the university's associate provost and chief diversity officer.
Jones Elementary, which is in the Chicopee Village community south of Gainesville, is made up mostly of Hispanic and low-income students, groups that typically don't perform as well on standardized tests and are considered "at risk" of dropping out of school, let alone attending college.
"A lot of their parents haven't had the experience of going to college," Jones said, "so we wanted to help them have the dream that they can do whatever they want to do and be whatever they want to be."
Jones Elementary plants the seeds early as well.
In the new program, second-graders visit Gainesville State College in Oakwood; third-graders, Lanier Technical College, Oakwood; and fourth-graders, North Georgia College & State University, Dahlonega.
"We really feel this will enable our students to have a vision and set goals for themselves by providing them an opportunity to experience what institutes of higher learning have to offer," said principal Hank Ramey.
"... By the time they leave us, we hope that they'll ... understand what it means to go on to college."
About 75 fifth-graders filled two buses early Thursday for the UGA trip. At UGA, Dozier greeted the students on the steps of the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building, named after the first black students to be admitted to the college in 1961.
"This is a welcoming campus, very inclusive," she said. "We have students and parents from all over the world."
The students then broke into groups to tour the historic North Campus. Along the way, one of the students asked tour guide Beau Gilmore, a UGA student and Athens native, about how to become a UGA student.
"As long as you're making great grades, it should be easy to get into UGA," Gilmore said. "... It's a little way off, but it's something to think about."
The students also toured the College of Veterinary Medicine and then sat down for lunch and a program at the Tate Student Center. At Tate, the students heard from Deryl Bailey, associate professor in the College of Education. He talked about a recent discussion he had with high school counselors.
"We talked about a lot of kids, just like you, your age, all over the country who are not doing well in school, for a number of reasons," he said. "You are the young people who can change the picture ... that's painted about young people like you.
"Right now, there's a lot of folks around this country that don't believe you can succeed academically. ... Your being here on campus today indicates that you have the will and the ability to be successful academically."
Genoveva Martinez, a parent who took the trip with her 10-year-old son, Noe, said she appreciated Jones Elementary sponsoring the trip. With her son translating her Spanish, she said, "It's good to think ahead to what you want to do when you grow up."
When asked his impressions of the college, Noe said, "It's big."
Joe Aguilar, 11, said he enjoyed himself at UGA. "There is lots of cool stuff around here," he said. "Everything is so big and colorful."
Dulce Aguilar, 11, who is not related to Joe, also shared the common opinion of the school's largeness.
The aspiring lawyer added, "It's quiet, clean and people seem to like each other."