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Perspective | Community spotlight: Wake Forest University prepares middle and high schoolers for college, career, and beyond

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Editor’s note: This feature is part of a series recapping the 2022 Emerging Issues Forum with the Institute for Emerging Issues. The 2023 Emerging Issues Forum will take place on Monday, February 13, 2023, at the NC State University McKimmon Center in Raleigh. This year’s forum will examine ways to address NC’s labor shortage by putting the needs of workers first and overcoming barriers to employment. Go here to learn more.

An important element of increasing educational attainment in North Carolina is making sure to reach young people who might not otherwise consider education beyond high school. Wake Forest University (WFU), one of the five participants in IEI’s educational attainment community cohort, offers a range of programs designed to help prepare middle and high school students for college or a career by exposing them to many possibilities for their futures.

Starting as early as seventh grade, students are invited to the Summer Exploration Program, a hands-on STEM learning experience. Middle schoolers typically spend a week on-campus at Wake Forest (although for the past two years, the program has operated online due to COVID-19). Students “choose their own adventure” in topics like medicine, robotics, and space exploration.

“Offering these programs at the middle school and high school levels, we feel, is an opportunity to connect with the community and connect with students,” said Kyla Hollingsworth, executive director of pre-college programs.

At the high school level, WFU offers two programs to help prepare students for higher education and career pathways. Their flagship program is the Summer Immersion Program, which has served more than 7,000 students in the past seven years. Students in the program spend a week at the university exploring career pathways and possible fields of study, from law to business to writing. They have access to WFU faculty and industry professionals in the field as they get exposed to future pathways they might not have otherwise considered.

The College LAUNCH for Leadership program is a newer program designed for high school juniors in the Winston-Salem and Charlotte areas who have historically been excluded from higher education but who show academic and leadership promise. There is a particular focus on social justice, leadership development, and college and career prep. 

“They’re able to discover the leader within themselves, the college they’re interested in, or the career path they’re interested in,” said Hollingsworth.

The program is free for participating students, and the outcomes are promising. The majority of the students go to college after completing the program, and 35% are first-generation college attendees. They are awarded more than $10 million in scholarships each year, and they have gone on to attend more than 70 colleges and universities across the country. Since the program started in 2014, it has served over 400 students, of whom about half are African American and 15% are Hispanic or Latinx.

Jaye, a College LAUNCH alum from 2020, said about the program, “The College LAUNCH program has also helped me become a better student and more aware of the world around me. Participating in this program has allowed me to advocate within my community and has prepared me for the rest of my life.”

College LAUNCH recruitment is open now for students in the Winston-Salem and Charlotte regions.

“By offering outreach programs and letting students prior to entry to college know that you’re here to support them, whether that be an after school program or a summer program or a one-day program, just giving them exposure is what universities can do to help support younger populations in getting them prepared for the future,” said Hollingsworth.

Wake Forest University Pre-College Programs is one of five community-based organizations chosen by IEI as part of the 2022 Emerging Issues Forum on educational attainment in NC.

Kirsten Chang

Kirsten Chang is a digital communications specialist at the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State University.