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Sixth-graders learn about college at district-wide trip to UNT

Sixth-graders prepare for their UNT visit
 
Ethan Desjardins knew exactly what he was getting into when he walked into a residence hall at the University of North Texas for the first time – or so he thought.

With roughly 20 or so of his classmates and a UNT resident advisor crammed into one of the university’s model dorm rooms, Ethan was a little surprised by what he saw. No TV, two small beds, a sink in the middle of the room and a considerable lack of elbow room because of the crowd.

“I appreciated getting the chance to see a dorm room,” said the Bettye Myers sixth-grader. “I really thought they were going to be bigger than they actually were.”

There were plenty of surprises for the majority of the almost 2,200 Denton Independent School District sixth-graders who took part in UNT’s Future Eagles program in September. A joint initiative between the university and Denton ISD, the Future Eagles program was designed as a way to get middle school students not just thinking about college, but experiencing it firsthand during the university’s 125th anniversary celebration.

Each sixth-grader from all seven district middle schools took part in the event, which coincided with UNT Founders’ Week, ensuring there would be plenty of buzz around the campus. Led by undergraduate and graduate students from various fields of study, the middle schoolers traversed across campus learning about UNT buildings, activities and campus life much like a high school senior on a campus tour.

“We wanted to make this as close to a real experience that a prospective UNT student would get when visiting the campus for the first time,” said Mario Zavala, director of communications and community relations for Denton ISD. “And the truth is I think we exceeded our own expectations and our sixth-graders benefitted from it.”

Participating sixth-graders not only got to visit dorms and chat with actual resident assistants, they also got to sit in on lectures and have conversations with college professors. They asked questions to college students passing by on the campus greens and imagined themselves relaxing after class in the lazy river at the UNT Rec Center.

Tour guides answered questions ranging from the studious (“How easy is it to change your major?”) to the silly (“How many different kinds of pizza can you get on campus?”) and everything in between. Though the groups tended to be larger than a traditional campus tour group, district staff and volunteers joined the UNT students in making sure everyone felt like they were part of the group.
 
Sixth-graders listen to a UNT student during their trip to the university

In fact, many of the 11- and 12-year-olds said they appreciated being taken seriously and made to feel like they belong.

“I really liked what I saw of the school and that everyone was so nice and friendly,” said Kali Eddings, a sixth-grader at McMath Middle School. “I had a great time, and think I want to come to UNT when I get older.”

Participating teachers, counselors and principals agreed that the Future Eagles program was a hit with the students and will pay dividends down the road. One overarching idea behind the program was that the sixth-graders would ask questions about what middle and high school classes will help them better prepare for college.

UNT did its part to ensure that many of the students would be back on campus sooner rather than later, too. The middle schoolers were encouraged to jot down what they spotted and learned during their day on campus as part of a scavenger hunt. Academic advisors rewarded participants with T-shirts, tickets to athletic events and the biggest prize of the day: $2,000 worth in scholarships. Each middle school walked away with at least one sixth-grader receiving a $500 scholarships if the student enrolls at the university and becomes part of the Mean Green Class of 2026.

“This fit right in with our [university] president’s message of celebrating our past and tying it back into those that will be part of our future,” said Dr. Elizabeth With, vice president of student affairs for UNT.

That future could very likely include many of these same sixth-graders leading campus tours at universities in Austin, Lubbock, Waco and other college town in the United States. But it could also lead to them staying home, being successful in Denton and leading Future Eagles of their own.

“It was a great field trip and I appreciated that they went out of their way to make us feel like we could be successful here,” said Avery Parker, a sixth-grader at Myers. “And even though I still have no idea what I want to do when I grow up, I think I’ll come to UNT.”