By Katherine Yeager | ECHO
From Tuesday to Thursday, campus bustled with 930 visitors: 830 prospective students and 100 accompanying parents and teachers.
Instead of the usual prospective student blue folders, they left with piggy banks and memories of their first college visit. Donning ponchos and enthusiasm despite the storms, the visitors, kindergarten through third graders from Blackford County schools, participated in a week-long field trip, "Walk Into My Future," sponsored by the Promise Indiana initiative and the Taylor University education department.
Blackford County Superintendent Scot Croner hopes that the week will develop aspirations in students and help them visualize themselves differently as they begin to develop future dreams for post-secondary education.
"It's all about kids winning," Croner said. "We're all in it together. We're very grateful, and we're going to do anything to get them there."
The students are from two schools: 400 from Southside and 120 from Montpelier.
Nineteen Indiana counties, according to Croner, currently institute the "Walk Into My Future" initiative, challenging students and their families to contribute an initial $25 to a 529 Education Savings Plan, which is then matched by the community with another $25.
"It's important to get kids thinking early on about the possibility of saving now, to open their horizons and opportunities now when they are impressionable," professor of education Alexis Armstrong said.
According to Armstrong, students are given piggy banks to "feed," encouraging children and their families to begin saving for a future college education. This goal originated from Promise Indiana, an initiative driven by a passion to provide the resources, community and "champions" to help children pursue their callings. Armstrong defined champions as those who are considered influential figures in a child's life.
During their time at Taylor, children were given sticky notes and asked to name their "champions" and stick the notes to a large purple paper, covering the wall outside one of the offices in the education department. Some champions included: "mom," "dad," "teacher" and "family."
According to the Blackford County Community Foundation, only one in ten Blackford County adults holds a college degree. As a result, according to the Foundation, some cannot achieve certain career qualifications, and the cycle of poverty persists, with more high school students eligible for free or reduced lunches than 90 percent of other Indiana counties.
"It was exciting to hear little children say, 'I will be back, I am going to Taylor University,'" professor of education Cynthia Tyner said. "Our hope is that they will at least consider college or furthering their education after high school graduation. If we influence a child or two each day to dream of going on to college, the number one goal of this event will be accomplished."
Tyner, along with professor of education Ben Hotmire and education department faculty, staff and students, worked with Blackford County schools to coordinate the event, which is celebrating its second anniversary.
Students and faculty members helped organize crafts, story time, Zumba, messages from the dean and provost and campus tours for the energetic visitors.
Junior elementary education major Cameron Eckmann worked for the first time at the event by giving campus tours to a group of second graders. Eckmann enjoyed sharing in the kids' first college experience.
"They had no idea that college students actually live on campus, and they freaked out a little bit when I told them that at the DC, they can eat all the food they want," Eckmann said.
The experience, according to Eckmann, helped him apply teaching skills outside of the classroom in a field trip setting. He enjoyed building excitement in children regarding different courses of study as he showed them different buildings around campus.
According to Hotmire, several of the young visitors' favorite activities included spending time with the Taylor Trojan mascot and accompanying pig mascot (representing their new piggy banks and 529 Plan knowledge). Students also latched onto storytime with professor of education Quinn White. Students yelled on cue and laughed as White used special voices for each character.
Last year, the first year of the program, students from Jay County schools visited campus. After Jay County Superintendent Jeremy Gulley approached Taylor with the initiative, the university embraced the opportunity.
Wabash County schools first instituted the program in Indiana to encourage students to develop 529 Education Savings plans as early elementary students. Last year, according to Hotmire, the goal for Jay County was to have 70 percent of visiting students sign up for the plan; 78 percent signed up.
Hotmire and White require their junior elementary education students to participate in the event during their 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. education classes as well as during the 11 o'clock hour. Tyner has her sophomore elementary education majors help on Tuesday and Thursday.
Hotmire received positive feedback from both the Jay County superintendent and assistant superintendent last year. They were appreciative of the university's hospitality, time spent with students and overall event organization.
Hotmire appreciated seeing his students interact with children, giving him another point of contact to view students teaching in action.
"It was awesome to see the initiative of students," Hotmire said. "I didn't have to twist many arms. They showed a lot of professionalism."
Hotmire recalls seeing junior Lauren Bairdshowing the heliostat in Euler to a group of students who were captivated by her enthusiasm.
He also appreciated seeing a non-education student play with a few children in between classes when the group congregated outdoors. He encourages other students to also engage with visiting children.
On Monday, 330 kindergarten students from Jay County schools will visit after the weather last Monday postponed their original plans, including 11 special needs students. The special needs students will be paired with 10 special education majors for personalized visits. All students are encouraged to engage with all visitors as they soak in the possibilities of their futures in education and beyond.