WALLA WALLA -- For students who lack the cultural or economic capital higher education demands, attending college can seem like a distant, unattainable dream.
At Whitman College's WISE (Whitman Institute for Summer Enrichment) program, 25 talented but disadvantaged middle-school students from around the Walla Walla area learned their dreams of attending college are within reach.
"We didn't go to college, so we didn't even know where to start, so it was that kind of thing. So it's been very inspirational (to know) that really college is possible for anybody. We knew that it was her dream to go here, but we didn't know how to make it work," said Susan Buettner, whose daughter Catelyn attended the program after being nominated by her teacher.
Buettner also said the information given to parents and students at the program has given the family some of the tools and information to make college education a reality. She said she and her husband were surprised to hear, "that she can go to the college of her choice -- that it can happen."
"They had us talk about how to get scholarships and that really helped me because I didn't know that there were so many scholarships I could apply for," said Catelyn, who after attending the program hopes to one day attend Whitman so she can stay close to her family and learn in a small-college environment.
The three-day program was designed to give students a taste of college life. During their stay, students dined at the college cafeteria, slept in a college dormitory and attended classes taught by professors. Students and parents also spent time learning about scholarships, financial aid and the college application process.
Throughout their stay, students were encouraged to reflect on their goals by writing about their dreams and meeting one-on-one with an admissions advisor. Students also created a "goal-tree" that visually represented what supports them (the roots), what makes them unique (the trunk) and their goals for the future (the branches).
At a parent-and-student dinner that culminated the event, students were given awards for their academic success thus far and encouraged to continue with their pursuits.
"I want you to know that each one of you has the ability to be enormously successful in your adult lives. Each one of you has the ability to succeed at the very best colleges and universities in the country," college President George Bridges said at the dinner.
"I was like yeah, I'm gonna go to college!" said WISE student Alondra Hernandez. Her parents are both immigrants from Mexico who hope education will help Alondra live a better life.
"I never went to college, that's why I push it all the time -- go to college. Because my wife and me we work in a farm. Well right now I have a better job -- I work at the Foundry. But before we worked in the fields, picking apples. And I explained to her, you want to do that?" Herrardo Hernandez said.
Omar Ihmoda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. President Bridges said after the dinner. President Bridges also said that the program, currently in its fourth year, will continue as long as he is president of the college.