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Perspective | Wingate University and Union County Public Schools partner to grow local roots

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A key challenge for higher education is the need to connect with local students and maintain their local roots. And a key challenge to our public schools is to ensure that all students are prepared for a postsecondary education.

In August 2023, first-year students across North Carolina will report to the college of their choice as students have for generations. As they arrive, they will acclimate to roommates, prepare for a vigorous schedule of core courses, eat meals at campus dining halls, and sample the pageantry and promise of being an undergraduate. These will be especially new and strange experiences for many students who have been isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For one group of future Wingate University students, the transition to college will be a bit more special.

Wayfind, a college-access program created in 2019 by Wingate University in partnership with Union County Public Schools, pairs up to 20 eighth grade students from Monroe and East Union middle schools with college mentors. This unique private-public partnership is the product of Wingate’s deep roots in the community and role as a laboratory of difference-making. Each new Wayfind Scholars’ cohort is honored with an awards program at Wingate University to begin building strong relationships among the scholars, families, schools, and university mentors.

Over the course of their high school years, Wayfind Scholars focus on developing skills, overcoming obstacles, and building confidence so that they can be the first in their families to attend college. Wayfind is designed for first-generation college students, those with financial need, and those historically underrepresented in higher education. Each cohort returns to campus for summer camp to develop their skills and build upon what they have experienced as Wayfind scholars during the school year.

Here’s what Wayfind scholars from the class of 2023 are saying:

“I realized that I am actually on the road to success.” — Tessa Stewart, Forest Hills High School.

“I now see that I can do anything if I put my time and effort into it.” — Celina Tovar Castro, Monroe High School.

“When I succeed, I want to come back and bring people with me.” — Robt “Adian” Smith, Forest Hills High School.

Being tapped for the program is competitive. Students must show careful and sustained academic potential and continue to achieve throughout their high school years. Those who persist and are accepted into Wingate receive a four-year, full-tuition scholarship.

Wingate and Union County Public Schools recently inducted their third class of Wayfind scholars. The first cohort will graduate high school in 2023. As each class of 20 scholars transitions to become Wingate Bulldogs, a new set of challenges await.

College will not be easy, but for Wayfind scholars, it comes with the knowledge that their public school system and their hometown university believe in them and are invested in their success. To learn more about Wayfind, visit the Wingate website.


Editor’s note: Craig Horn serves on EducationNC’s Board of Directors.

Rhett Brown

Dr. Rhett Brown is the president of Wingate University.

Andrew Houlihan

Dr. Andrew G. Houlihan is the superintendent of Union County Public Schools.

Craig Horn

Hon. Craig Horn serves on the Board of Trustees of Wingate University and is a former member of the North Carolina General Assembly and chairman of the House Education Policy and Appropriations committees. He is a also board member of digiLEARN, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating digital learning to increase personal learning options for students and expand instructional opportunities for teachers and instructors.