BELLINGHAM — Once a week after school, a group of Burlington-Edison High School students get on a school bus and head north about a half an hour.

Their destination: Western Washington University.

On a recent week, the students’ destination was the university’s Science, Math and Technology Education building, where they shot air cannons, got up-close and personal with a tarantula and played a game of hide-and-go-seek with the help of a thermal imaging device.

“We try to expose them to as many different buildings and as many different activities (on campus) as possible,” said Burlington-Edison School District GEAR UP coordinator Heather Paton.

GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is a federally-funded program designed to keep kids in school and help them succeed in post-secondary education.

Students can become involved in GEAR UP as early as middle school, and be supported through the program through their freshman year of college.

For Paton’s students, all ninth-graders in the high school’s GEAR UP program, the weekly field trips to Western are part of the North 2 Western program, which partners Paton’s GEAR UP program with the university’s Compass 2 Campus program.

“They’re doing academic work, but they’re also getting exposed to the community,” said Maria Timmons-Flores, interim director of the university’s Compass 2 Campus program. “They get to feel like what it’s like to be on a university campus. They can begin to imagine seeing themselves as students on a university campus.”

Compass 2 Campus sends college-age mentors into 33 area elementary, middle and high schools to get students excited about continuing their educations past high school.

Because of the schedules of high school students, it’s more difficult for the college mentors to get to know them, Timmons-Flores said.

That’s why Paton decided three years ago to bring the high school students to the mentors.

“I knew that fewer kids in the valley were choosing Western,” Paton said. “I had a feeling that kids weren’t aware of Western being a good fit for them.”

Each week, about a dozen high school students and their mentors participate in activities throughout Western’s campus. Then, the high school students work on their homework with help from their mentors. Generally, Paton said, there is one college mentor per high school student.

Then the group heads to one of the university’s dining halls for dinner.

“It’s really important to break bread after homework,” Paton said. “It’s important to hang out and talk about things that aren’t school.”

Many of the mentors come from backgrounds similar to those of the high school students. At least four are Burlington-Edison High School graduates.

“I’m able to empathize with these students and do meaningful work with them,” said 20-year-old Celina Espinoza, a Burlington-Edison graduate studying health, P.E. and secondary education at Western.

Espinoza said it wasn’t until the seventh grade that she thought she would go to college.

That is, she said, until the people with the blue Compass 2 Campus shirts — some of whom even looked like her — showed up at her school.

“It makes a huge difference,” Espinoza said. “I remember the people in the blue shirts coming to my class and encouraging us to look for things after high school. It made me think, ‘I can get there, too.’”

For 14-year-old Joel Bailon, the decision to take part in the program has been an easy one.

“When I come here, it gives me an opportunity to do my homework, hang out with my friends, and meet the mentors,” he said. “I love the people here and I love the program. I love the vibe.”

That feeling of belonging is something both Paton and Timmons-Flores said they hope to cultivate in the students.

“We don’t want any of our students to underestimate their potential,” Paton said. “These kids, after multiple visits, feel they belong here.”

— Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141, kwanielista@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kera_SVH, facebook.com/KeraReports

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