They arrived as strangers and graduated as family. At first, they had some hard exteriors — even as incoming ninth graders — protective shells that somewhat reflected their hometown urban settings. But, after four years of collaborating on classroom assignments, tossing a few water balloons and sharing canoes, they call each other friends, even family.

CAPTION: C2C graduates received copies of Dr. Suess’ “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”

This past July, the first 20 graduates of Saint Mary’s Countdown to College (C2C) program formed a group hug as they stifled and wiped away tears. For four years, the group spent two weeks each summer at Saint Mary’s. During this time, many friendships formed and participants grew physically, intellectually and emotionally.

Saint Mary’s began Countdown to College four years ago to break down the barriers to higher education by exposing youth with high potential directly to the college experience. C2C’s two-week academic camp provides high school students from under-resourced communities with activities to help them prepare for college. Students come from SMU’s partner schools, which include the Nativity and San Miguel middle schools and Cristo Rey high schools in Chicago, Milwaukee, Racine, Waukegan, Minneapolis, Tucson, and Browning, Mont.

Saint Mary’s, through generous benefactors, offers free classes, recreation, field trips, and room and board on the Winona campus. The same students are welcomed back for four consecutive summers, graduating as they are about to enter their senior years of high school. Students take classes in vocabulary, math, writing and reading their first two summers. The last two summers they earn college credit in a science immersion class focused on water ecology, with supporting literacy classes in scientific reading and writing, and statistics. They also receive follow-up services during each school year from the C2C coordinator who visits them, reviews their grade reports, and works with school counselors to help them stay on track for academic success.

Saint Mary’s hopes to see many of these students enrolled as freshmen in 2014.

C2C graduates may qualify for Saint Mary’s First- Generation Scholars program, which provides scholarships and educational support for students with high financial need, academic potential, and a record of leadership and volunteering.

Dr. Jane Anderson, program director, said, “When we first started Countdown to College, I wondered whether four summer sessions and school-year follow-up would be enough to change the dismal college graduation rate of first-generation students from economically challenged communities. These 20 students swept away all my doubts. They will be confident, engaged college students who are academically prepared for high success in college.”

Dr. Jane Anderson CST'62, program director for Countdown to College, instructs the students.

Dr. Jane Anderson CST’62, program director for Countdown to College, instructs the students.

The first graduateing class from Countdown to College.

The first graduating class from Countdown to College.

One favorite yearly outing is canoeing on the Mississippi River.

One favorite yearly outing is canoeing on the Mississippi River.

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