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by Mark McGowan
Fifty-two students from Rockford Jefferson High School, including a number of recent graduates from the Class of 2008, returned to the NIU campus Sunday evening for a weeklong taste of the college life.
For some, the next few days are an orientation of sorts: After four years of attending the Project REAL camp, a handful of these students who once had little or no ambitions or expectations for college are incoming NIU freshmen.
And, for the first time, this year’s experience will concentrate on a central theme: tolerance. Deb Smith-Shank, a professor of art education at NIU, suggested the new concept.
“It seems like it fits really well,” camp director Judy Cox-Henderson said. “One of the things the kids talk about being really important about the camp is getting along with kids from school who they haven’t gotten along with before. The kids think that’s valuable.”
Classes in English and art will revolve around concepts of tolerance, she said, and 16 students are signed up for a course on the history of genocide.
Meanwhile, the simple act of leaving home for a few days and sharing a room in Stevenson Towers should provide the rest of the lessons.
“They learn a lot about independence. They set behavioral expectations for themselves. They learn to get along,” said Cox-Henderson, whose main responsibility is coordinator of clinical experiences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “There’s sort of a problem with that at Jefferson, but they rise to the occasion. They learn people skills.”
Project REAL, NIU’s federally funded partnership with the Rockford Public Schools and Rock Valley College, ends its five-year grant this year. The camp launched in 2005 to expose students who were not necessarily college-bound – but whose teachers glimpsed that potential within them – to the benefits of higher education.
Judging by this summer’s presence of a few future Huskies, it’s proven a success.
“It’s wonderful. It’s what we’ve really wanted to happen from the very beginning,” Cox-Henderson said.
“Even though they’re afraid to go to college, they think they can handle NIU because they’re familiar with it,” she added. “Camp has made it possible for these kids who might not have gone that extra step. It’ll change their entire lives. It’ll give them something else. It just expands what they can do with the rest of their lives. They will have options.”
To further help those students, the camp will offer a “UNIV 101” course in study skills that will improve their familiarity with the campus and introduce them to college-level reading and note-taking.
This year’s camp also has introduced a course in teaching methods. “That’s sort of something I’ve wanted to do … encourage these kids to go into teaching,” Cox-Henderson said.
NIU faculty from the colleges of Education, Health and Human Sciences, Liberal Arts and Sciences and Visual and Performing Arts teach the classes. Ten NIU students serve as counselors.
Other courses include 3-D Art, Medical Mystery, Photo Story, Photography, Pottery, Printmaking and Video Gaming.
In 3-D Art, they create sculptures out of shoes. In Medical Mystery – it’s actually a class in microbiology – students are presented with symptoms and must determine the illness. In Photo Story, they transform their pictures into something near to a movie. In Video Gaming, they create their own video games.
Students will welcome their families Friday afternoon to the NIU Music Building for a showcase of the week’s accomplishments and a presentation of awards.
The week in DeKalb also will feature fun activities, including a pool party at Hopkins Park and a night of billiards, bowling and more at the Huskies Den. Cox-Henderson is proud that students in Jefferson High School’s NIU Club raised funds during the school year to pay for those events.