CHAMPAIGN — Chaddrick James-Gallaway sat in front of a large room full of fifth-graders at Booker T. Washington STEM Academy next to four fellow representatives from the Illinois College of Education on Wednesday and asked a question that received an enthusiastic response.
“How many of you play 'Fortnite'?” the doctoral candidate asked, to which the other members of the panel laughed as hands shot up across the room.
In college, he explained, students have the freedom to do whatever they want — like playing "Fortnite" for days on end — but also the responsibility to stay productive.
Over the course of two hours on Wednesday, members of the College of Education’s Office of Community College Research and Leadership talked about all things college, including classes, student loans, income opportunities, roommates and plenty of other topics.
The short panel discussion, which was followed by more targeted mentoring, was meant to expose kids to college. Over the next several months, Eboni Zamani-Gallaher and others from the College of Education will come back to talk to the students two more times before taking them on a tour of the Illinois campus.
“We would be remiss if we just thought everybody in the world goes to college when that’s not true,” said Asia Fuller Hamilton, a fifth-grade teacher at Booker T. Washington. “We have to address that and let students know the opportunities that are available for them if they find that a community college or a university is not for them.
“There are all types of technical schools that they can go to to achieve their ambitions and dreams,” she said.
The plan to make the appeal to the elementary-schoolers was hatched when Zamani-Gallaher spoke with Fuller Hamilton, who received her doctorate at Illinois, about what her class needed for the upcoming year.
Many of her students couldn’t afford their own school supplies, so Zamani-Gallaher and her associates provided them.
But she wanted to do more.
“I said, ‘Beyond us donating all the stuff, we want to actually engage with the kids,’” she said. “‘Can we work with you to articulate something where we can show them possibility models and have a program throughout the year?’ She said, ‘That would be great because so many of my kids haven’t been exposed to college, haven’t been outside Champaign, have not been on campus.’
“They’ve heard of the university, but they have no concept of what that is or looks like.”
As of Wednesday, the University of Illinois is no longer foreign to those students. And by April, they’ll have an experience to attach to the information they’re absorbing.
“I think that there are a lot of times that we just make assumptions in education that people are going to go to college, or they know what college is, or they’re going to go into the military, or they’re going to do something,” James-Gallaway said.
“It’s important for them to understand their options in terms of college, where they could go, where they could end up and just start thinking about it right now so that they don’t get into high school and say, ‘I want to go to college,’ and they don’t have certain things set up in place to do that.”