Give me a break! It’s just a college tour!

Eight years ago, I attended my first college tour thanks to a partnership between the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Howard University’s Alumni Club of Chicago.

“Escape to Mecca” (E2M) is an annual college visit that started 11 years ago.  It has exposed more than 400 Chicago area juniors and seniors to life on Howard’s campus.  The trip is organized by current Howard students originally from the Chicago area. The CPS alumni knew that spring break would be a great time to visit Washington, DC, because students wouldn’t miss valuable class time. Unlike traditional tours, E2M fully thrusts participants into campus life; they live in dorms and dine in cafeterias with their hosts, engage in social events, attend classes, and get the chance to meet a number of administrators.

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First Lady Michelle Obama joins high school students from Chicago for a campus tour at Howard University in Washington, D.C., April 17, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

The most recent group of participants got an extra treat this year when First Lady Michelle Obama met privately with the E2M participants.  I accompanied Mrs. Obama as she toured campus dorms with students and then participated in a discussion about the challenges of attending college, and the importance of finding ways to overcome those challenges while using them as tools to success.  She applauded students for taking ownership of their futures by participating in a trip like E2M and not letting the opportunity go to waste.

“So the fact that you guys have this opportunity to spend a weekend on a college campus and really get a feel for what this experience is going to be like is really a tremendous opportunity that I hope you will take advantage of,” said Mrs. Obama.

As Mrs. Obama said, there are a lot of variables to consider when students and their families navigate the college decision process including: school size, location, student-to-faculty ratios and costs.  More high school students should use their spring and summer breaks to plan visits to institutions of higher learning.  She said, “Contact schools that are of interest to you, plan a visit to the campus, walk inside the dorm, sit in the class, talk to students and meet with the financial aid office.” This allows students and families the flexibility to spend quality time at colleges without interrupting important high school schedules.

The First Lady’s advice resonated with this year’s E2M participants. Though her visit was a major highlight, the best part of the spring break trip was that 27 students accepted admission to Howard University’s Class of 2018.

I can relate to what the seniors felt as they visited classes, slept in dorms, and joined their hosts at campus hangouts. My trip gave me the opportunity to get a feel for what life was going to be like as a college freshman and solidified my decision to attend Howard University.  That spring break changed my life.

As a native of the inner-city of Chicago, I realized that campus brochures and websites weren’t enough for me to fully grasp the reality of college.  It took the physical act of being there—of walking the grounds that so many trailblazers before me walked, of sleeping in the same rooms that were once inhabited by the likes of Thurgood Marshall, and visiting the library where Charles Drew studied—to realize the legacy of the institution and the legacy I wanted to leave for those after me.

I mean let’s face it: if you’re on spring or summer break, you should use the time to plan a campus visit.

Here are tips & tools from ED to get a head start this summer:

College ScorecardIncludes information about a particular college’s cost, its graduation rates and the average amount its students borrow. It is designed to help you compare colleges and choose one that is well-suited to your individual needs.

  • College Affordability and Transparency Center: ED has compiled lists of institutions based on the tuition and fees and net prices (the price of attendance after considering all grant and scholarship aid) charged to students.
  • Federal Student Aid: There are thousands of scholarships, from all kinds of organizations; Federal Student Aid provides tips and resources to help you find scholarships for which you may be eligible.

De’Rell Bonner is a special assistant and youth liaison in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Communications and Outreach