Friends Deborah Nsele and Ruth Akamba, both rising seniors at Gainesville High, are in the third week of a month-long summer academic program at the University of North Georgia.
And the two students are old pro’s by now, having participated in the Steps to College program in the summer of 2018, as well.
“I want to get ahead,” Nsele said.
For Nsele, whose family, like Akamba’s, is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a chance to progress in the academic “off season” is precisely what the program offers by providing summer enrichment courses for English-learning local high school students.
The program was founded in 1999 with the first class including 44 students. This year marks the 20th anniversary (the program did not operate one summer due to lack of funding).
The program is supported by the Goizueta Foundation, an educational philanthropic organization based in metropolitan Atlanta, as well as a state grant.
Both Gainesville City Schools and Hall County Schools participate, and the program also operates at UNG’s Cumming campus to serve Forsyth County students.
UNG’s Gainesville and Cumming campuses are hosting about 100 students in the program this summer, which also provides opportunities for them to earn credit toward graduation and introduce them to life at an institution of higher education.
Students take one class during the program. Courses this year include economic, civics and government, and creative writing.
Taking just one class “makes it easy to focus and study,” Akamba said.
It also gives students the opportunity to develop a camaraderie among their classmates.
Tevi Reed, a social studies teacher and ESOL lead teacher at West Hall High School who teaches economics for the Steps to College program, said the program is a great way to prepare high school students for higher education.
“They see a college setting and grow comfortable with it,” Reed said.
She added that students in the program have chosen to be there, which means it takes very little to motivate them.
“They’re giving up a month of their summer,” Reed said.
Dr. Harriett Allison, director of Steps to College and director of English as a second language and summer programs at UNG, said a new grant this year from AT&T will help finance field trips for program participants to visit local industry and business, to learn about “the many, many possibilities and what the pathways are” in the working world.
Lisa Diehl, coordinator of Steps to College and senior lecturer of English at UNG, said the program gives opportunities first-generation high school graduates from immigrant families.
“You’re important,” Diehl said. “You’re not forgotten in our education system.”
Karla Turcios, a rising junior at Gainesville High, said the summer program provides her a kind of personalized instruction. She described her teacher as helpful and patient “in a way you can learn it better.”
Turcios has three siblings who have graduated high school, but she hopes to become the first in her family to pursue higher education.
“I’m actually going to be the first one to go to college,” she said, adding that she plans to attend UNG now that she’s become familiar with the Gainesville campus and what it offers.
“They want to learn and they understand this is an opportunity to do that,” Diehl said. “We’ve had a lot of students come out of this program and go to college.”