The painting of a tall, sturdy tree with brilliant green leaves, emerging boldly from the earth, represents Lillian Lowery’s life and ambitions.
The roots, seeped into the earth, are her foundation — her family, friends and teachers who have been her support system. The trunk then rises out of the earth and through space.
“The branches are up in space and that’s where I want to be, as an astronaut,” Lowery, 13, said, describing her aspiration.
Lowery works on the painting, adding paint and sprinkling glitter into it, on Whitman College’s Ankeny Field. She and 20 other area teens took part in the 2012 WISE program, which stands for Whitman Institute for Scholastic Enrichment, last week.
The program brings local eighth- and ninth-graders to the Whitman campus for three days and two nights each summer to experience college, and to strengthen dreams of reaching higher education.
The art project, in which students are asked to render a tree as an expression of themselves, has become a tradition of the WISE program.
“We’ve done this every year,” said Sonja Aikens, WISE coordinator.
Aikens said the program is geared toward students who would be among the first in their families to go to college, or whose limited knowledge of college might be convincing them against it.
“They’re maybe already limiting themselves in middle school to what they can do in the future,” she said.
This year, students from Dayton, Prescott, Waitsburg, College Place, Milton-Freewater and Walla Walla were accepted into WISE. Each student was recommended by someone like a teacher, then had to write an essay and fill out an application to be considered.
Once accepted, students arrive at the campus to stay in the dorms and eat in the dining halls, while taking part in activities that help present college as an attainable goal.
“We do a financial workshop, and tips for high school success,” Aikens said, among other activities that this year included a chemistry class.
Aikens said the program addresses myths about reaching higher education, like that it’s only for students with straight As, or it’s only for families with higher incomes. Private schools in particular often have generous financial options.
“People shouldn’t assume, ‘Oh, I can’t go to a private school because I can’t afford it,’” Aikens said.
The WISE program is funded by the Carrie Welch Trust, which has supported the program the past five years after initial funding ended. This year WISE received additional support through a gift from Megan and Marty Clubb and their winery, L’Ecole No 41, Aikens said. WISE is offered to students free of charge.
Christian Moreno, 14, added paint to the border of his art project, which he sketched first in pencil. Within the sketch of his tree, Moreno had written details about himself, including ‘the subjects I’m good at are math and science.’
“Those are my favorite subjects,” he said. “I want to do medical stuff, like be a doctor or work in a hospital.”
Moreno, a student at Central Middle School in Milton-Freewater, said he was recommended by teacher Kam Johnson. Moreno said the WISE experience had been positive.
“I think it’s pretty cool how you get to know about college life and live on the campus,” he said.
Lowery, who will be in the eighth grade at Garrison Middle School this fall, was recommended to WISE by her Explorer’s teacher Beth Clearman.
Although Lowery’s mother recently earned degrees from Walla Walla Community College and Whitman College, higher education has not been the norm in her family.
“A lot of my family hasn’t even finished high school,” she said.
Lowery said the WISE program had helped ease her fears about college.
“It’s been really helpful,” she said. “I’ve been so much more motivated to go to college now. I’m a lot less scared.”
Perhaps the heart of the program is the Whitman students who work as resident assistants yet also offer friendship and mentoring. This year 13 college students interacted with the teens over the three days in different shifts.
Allie Willson, 20, is a junior at Whitman and in her second summer working with WISE students.
Willson sat with students on the grassy field, chatting and laughing with them, and taking a break to sing the popular refrain from Carly Rae Jepsen’s, “Call Me Maybe.”
Aikens said the WISE program wouldn’t be what it is without the college students there to act as mentors and friends.
“It’s important for kids to know college isn’t just a scary thing, it’s actually a lot of fun,” Willson said.