WALLA WALLA -- Whitman College opened its doors to a group of area teens this summer as part of the annual Whitman Institute for Scholastic Enrichment program.
WISE drew 22 students in eighth and ninth grades to the campus for three days and two nights in August. Over that time, the students got a chance to attend classes taught by Whitman professors, meet some students, stay the night in the dorms and even eat campus food.
The program is an opportunity for middle-school students from the region to get a first-hand introduction to college life and the college process. That introduction begins even as students apply to take part in the program.
WISE program coordinator Sonja Aikens said it has been around in its current structure since 2006. Each summer 20-25 teens are selected from an applicant pool to come to Whitman and learn that going to college is a realistic goal.
Aikens said the program is geared primarily to students who would be among the first in their families to go to college, or who do not have easy access to information on getting into college or seeking higher education. The program is offered free of charge with funding from the Carrie Welsh Trust and support from the college.
To apply, students have to complete an application, get a letter of recommendation, have good grades, and write an essay about their plans for the future and describe themselves and their interests.
Aikens said even filling out the application gets students prepared for college, because filling out forms and writing a personal statement is similar to actually applying.
"It's a very pared-down model of the college application process itself," she said.
During the three days and two nights on campus, students participated in workshops, did projects, attended classes and had time to socialize with one another and college students as well.
One activity involves an art project that has the students craft trees using a medium of their choice. Paint, markers or pictures cut and pasted to form a collage are some choices.
Aikens said the exercise has the students design the roots as their personal support system, the trunk as who they are -- their interests and favorite things -- and the branches as their goals for the future.
"We ask them to think about who they are, what they're good at, what they love to do," Aikens said. "We're trying to get them to reflect."
Class time included lessons in anthropology, math and geology from Whitman professors.
Aikens said the lessons are designed to be at the middle school, not college level. Activities often are included to make the lessons more engaging and interactive.
This summer, a geology instructor replicated earthquake vibrations into the ground to get students measuring waves. Past students have also looked at telescopes following astronomy lessons.
"We try to make it really active and visual for them so they're not just sitting in a classroom," Aikens said. "They're getting a lot of hands-on learning."
In all, students spend six hours in classes as part of the program. Time is also dedicated to talking about paying for college, from applying for financial aid to finding scholarships. Each student also visited with an admissions officer. Whitman students served as residence advisors for the overnight portions and were also there as mentors to the students.
Although the program is held at Whitman, Aikens said the goal is not to recruit students, but to get them applying and enrolled at a college that meets their needs. That could be Walla Walla Community College, or Washington State University or maybe Whitman or other private schools.
Aikens said the program is always seeking more applicants, and could use help getting the word out to area middle school students. Applications are taken in the spring and due around May.
WISE is driven by a desire to help students achieve college dreams, who might otherwise miss the opportunity.
"The activities are fun on the surface, but underlying it, we're trying to keep these themes of preparing them for applying to college," Aikens said.
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8317.