In a unique arrangement, a high school’s entire freshman class sees a campus for the first time — and envisions what’s possible.
Most of the high school students trailing behind Alex Longo x’13 had never set foot on a college campus before, so she explained UW–Madison’s landmarks in terms she knew they would understand.
A student union is like a campus living room, Longo told the group, which began its walking tour on a sunny day last fall on the sprawling patio outside Union South. Camp Randall Stadium is where the Badgers play football, she continued, pointing to its massive concrete frame in the backdrop as they crossed University Avenue. It’s also where the entire student section jumps up and down on the bleachers during the song “Jump Around” by House of Pain, she added, bouncing her head cheerfully for a visual.
“You’re going to see a lot of things that are different,” said Longo before leading students through Henry Mall, past Agricultural Hall, up to Observatory Drive, and down Bascom Hill.
And that is exactly what administrators at Addison Trail High School in suburban Chicago have counted on since 2006, when they began sending their entire freshman class — some five hundred students — to the UW for a glimpse of what’s possible after graduation.
The giant class trip, spread over five visits in September, is the largest group tour conducted by Visitor & Information Programs each year, and it has become a campus tradition of its own. Students working as campus tour guides feel honored to be chosen to show the Illinois teens around for a day, says Jessica McCarty ’05, visitor relations coordinator. The guides see it as a unique chance to reach high school students long before the stress of taking the SAT and sending college applications begins.
“It’s always fun to see the energy that comes off the bus, “ McCarty says. “Not everybody rides two and a half hours on the interstate to get here.”
The partnership between Addison Trail and UW–Madison was formed when the high school’s administrators returned from a trip to Boston, where they had learned about the value of smaller learning communities and saw promise for their students. Once a predominantly white student body, today’s two thousand students are 55 percent Hispanic/Latino, 35 percent white, and 52 percent low income, says Adam Cibulka, Addison Trail’s principal. But the 2010 census statistic that really captured the attention of officials was this: only 21 percent of the school’s surrounding community aged twenty-five and above had a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Administrators in Addison, a middle-class community not far from O’Hare International Airport, knew that if they wanted their students to aspire to continue their education past high school, they needed to show them not only what college looks like, but also what it requires to get there.
“Many of our students are going to be the first in their families to go to college, so the importance of getting them on a college campus and understanding the requirements and the steps necessary to get into college is imperative,” Cibulka says.
It’s a conclusion that more and more of those working with young people have drawn in recent years, as college admissions offices have come to expect applicants to demonstrate tireless extracurricular involvement and volunteer work along with good grades and test scores.
Evidence of this, McCarty says, can be seen in the way requests for customized tours — coming from Boy Scout troops, day care centers, and other groups not immediately college bound — have spiked recently. Just six years ago, her office welcomed nearly nineteen thousand visitors annually. As the end of 2012 neared, she estimated that campus visitors participating in customized tours would surpass thirty thousand for the year.
Some of this growth can be traced to increased marketing, coupled with practical changes in the logistics of student tours, now launched from the expansive and newly opened Union South instead of smaller offices near Bascom Hill. But requests from those who want to give young people access to a college setting are also a primary driving force for the growth, McCarty says.
“A lot of schools and after-school clubs and community organizations are calling us and saying, ‘We want our schools exposed to higher education in some way,’ ” she says. “They’re kind of planting the seed that if this is a place where you want to come, then this is what you have to do.”
Addison Trail administrators originally tried to find a Chicago-area college or university to host its freshman class for a day, but local colleges repeatedly said they couldn’t accommodate such a large group. So when Kurt Haberl, a now-retired teacher at the high school, suggested that they try UW–Madison — where his daughter attended school and worked part time as a tour guide — they figured it was worth a try.
Each year, Addison Trail has sent a caravan of yellow school buses filled with one hundred freshmen at a time to UW–Madison for a ninety-minute custom tour, followed by lunch at the Memorial Union. Even in times of budget cutbacks, the visits remain a high priority for the school. While the tours are free, the bus fees are paid for with the school district’s foundation funds and a contribution of ten dollars from each student, Principal Cibulka says.
On the crisp fall morning when fourteen-year-old Alondra Estrada stepped off one such bus, she looked the part of a seasoned college student in her gray fleece zip-up jacket, jeans, and comfortable white tennis shoes. But her wide-eyed surveillance of her surroundings as she crunched through the leaves along campus paths gave away her true background.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Estrada had never visited a college campus before. Her father, who owns a cleaning service, didn’t attend college. Her mother, a clerk at a department store, received an associate’s degree from the community college a few miles away from the family’s home in Addison.
“I’ve never seen such buildings before,” said Estrada. “I thought the campus would be more close together.”
Her classmates viewed the campus with similar awe, peppering tour guides with a wide range of questions: How much time do they give you in between your classes? Is living in a dorm just like a big sleepover? How much do you have to study? What’s that building with the columns?
Alondra Avitia and Jacara Mackley, both fourteen, giggled as they observed students lounging with open textbooks on Bascom Hill.
“Me and my friend, we’re like, ‘They have really nice grass’ — and I love grass,” Avitia said.
“And [the students are] really fashionable,” Mackley chimed in. “They make sweatshirts look really pretty with jewelry and stuff.”
Addison Trail officials say they already see the partnership with UW-Madisonmaking a difference: in 2012, 88 percent of the graduating class went on to college, compared to approximately 80 percent before the program started.
Longo, who expects to graduate from UW–Madison in the spring with a degree in communications, is considered another success story. She was a member of the first Addison Trail freshman class that toured UW–Madison. At the time, she knew nothing about college life, and she hadn’t given any thought to what it would take to be admitted to a university. Today, she wears her red tour guide attire proudly, giving two or three campus tours per week, scheduled around her classes. When she graduates this spring, she hopes to land a job in public relations.
“I was exactly in you guys’ shoes,” Longo told the Addison Trail students on the fourth of five visits scheduled last fall. “They take you on this field trip so you can start with an end in mind.”
School officials know of at least six students since 2006 who enrolled at UW–Madison after graduation.
Based on the success of the partnership, Addison Trail expanded its required college visit program this year. Now, in addition to the freshman trip, sophomores at the high school take a mandatory field trip to Illinois State University as a contrast to a large public university. Juniors and seniors at the college are invited to join smaller groups touring campuses that include Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, the University of Iowa, and Elmhurst College.
But the UW–Madison visit remains the flagship field trip for the high school, with no plans for change in the near future.
At one of the last stops on a recent tour, a cluster of Addison Trail students stood in front of Bascom Hall as tour guides explained the history and legend behind the Abraham Lincoln statue. When a guide explained how some students believe that rubbing Abe’s foot brings good luck, the high schoolers’ faces brightened. Several took off running at full speed to jump up and touch the statue in a quest for good fortune.
Addison freshman Ryan Zygowicz reached the statue first and rubbed Abe’s foot purposefully before climbing down to catch his breath and share his hope.
“I wished to just become successful in life and to go to a good college,” he said.
Vikki Ortiz Healy ’97 is a reporter and columnist at the Chicago Tribune.