Picking a college is a multiple-choice test

Tours: A nonprofit foundation helps city students visit several campuses.

April 09, 2003|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

For Shaneeka Royster, a vivacious 17-year-old from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, going to college has always been a goal.

"My profession is medicine," she stated matter-of-factly. "I want my own clinic."

So when about 25 juniors and sophomores from Baltimore schools Dunbar and Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School boarded a bus to tour two Philadelphia-area colleges recently, Royster made sure she was there.

"I go every time we have a trip. I go to everything," she said.

Eight hours later, after visiting small Cabrini College in affluent Radnor and St. Joseph's University on the western edge of Philadelpia, Royster said Cabrini, a liberal arts college with 1,300 students, was too small and didn't have enough African-American students. Although she doesn't insist on attending a historically black college, the junior said: "I want to be surrounded by a little group of people of my culture."

After walking through the more multicultural and bustling St. Joseph's campus, she said, "Wow, that is big. It felt like more of an inner-city college."

But in the end, she said, she might decide to go to college in Baltimore.

Royster's reaction is common among the groups of students the nonprofit College Bound Foundation are working with from Dunbar and city vocational schools. Many of the Baltimore teen-agers are motivated, have good grades, a desire to go to college and the ability to garner enough scholarships and loans to pay their way.

But many are afraid to leave, said Samuel Walker III, a College Bound guidance counselor at Dunbar. "A lot of these kids only know Baltimore," Walker said. "A lot of our kids are afraid to compete."

They wonder, Walker said, "Will I measure up?"

So the option of going to Morgan State University in Baltimore, he said, "where everyone looks like me and acts like me" is more appealing.

While Walker is quick to say Morgan is an excellent school where students can get a good education, he sees value in students leaving home and experiencing a different environment.

Often they are the first generation to go to college, and their parents are reluctant to see them stray too far from home. Sometimes they have been responsible for helping raise a sibling. Whatever the reason, Walker said, he often has difficulty convincing students that they can feel comfortable outside of the city even when, like Royster, they are ambitious.

Royster, wearing high heels, a stylish dress and a gold necklace that spells out her first name, seemed to hone in on the task at hand. As the group toured Cabrini and St. Joseph's on a gorgeous spring day, she didn't stroll behind and take in the landscape. She was right in the front, asking a myriad of questions of the college admissions representatives and the students giving the tours. She and her friends quietly counted the number of African-American students they saw at Cabrini. And when the Baltimore students joined a group of parents and other students for a talk by admissions officials at St. Joseph's, it was the students from Baltimore who raised their hands to ask the questions: Do you give out needs-based aid? Do you have a major in accounting?

Back at home, pursuing her goal of being a psychiatrist, Royster works in an after-school program with abused children.

College Bound, which has a full-time college guidance counselor in 12 of the city's high schools, has made a point of exposing students as early and often to college life as possible so that they understand what grades and SAT scores are required to get into college and how they can apply for financial aid.

But they also want students, like Tarrell Coley, who might never have been on a college campus before to understand what it feels like.

"I thought college was going to be a scary thing," Coley, a 16-year-old at Dunbar, said after visiting four or five campuses through College Bound trips. "It is really just getting an education."

Coley, who will be the first in his family to attend college, said it is reassuring to speak with students who can explain what life is like at their campus.

The foundation pays for 60 trips a year, allowing about 2,000 students to visit college campuses. So far this year, students have been to 12 colleges in Maryland and about 15 out of state, including Temple University, Gettysburg College, the University of Richmond and the University of Delaware.

Not all students are fearful of going away.

"I want to get away from the city. I want to be on my own," said Sharonda McLean, 15-year-old Dunbar sophmore. Every day, she said, she gets a lecture from her older sister about attending college, and her mother always reminds her to put aside her pennies. "They want me to have better than they do," she said.

The visit to Cabrini and St. Joseph's was McLean's first out-of-town college tour. On the bus ride to Philadelphia, she said, "I expect to see big, open fields, trees, lots of people, professors -- mean-looking professors."

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