Local students see colleges by canoe

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School of Environmental Studies organizes trip to Iowa river towns

Students at the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley do the same kind of assignments other high school students do, but they are often completed not in a classroom but in nature.

So it’s no surprise that when a group of incoming juniors and seniors at the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan magnet school for 11th- and 12th-graders went on college visits this summer, they traveled from one college to another by canoe.

Nine SES students and two staff members loaded up five water-worthy crafts last month and drove to Iowa to visit Luther and Wartburg colleges along with the University of Northern Iowa.

Though the trip involved more logistics than typical college visits, the students said all of the preparation and slow progression from one town to the other was worth the effort as they learned more about schools that will factor into one of the most important decisions in their life.

Counselor Nathan Nelson and AVID coordinator Hillary Wackman guided the students through the journey, which had its light and more serious moments.

“Taking students in the field is always hard, but the learning is so profound that it is worth it,” said Wackman, who also teaches English and environmental studies at the school. “And, in the end, it’s so fun.

“The point of the trip of seeing three Iowa schools of different sizes, two private, one public, was to avoid whimsy, and to operate with the belief that all college visits teach you something about this important financial and life decision,” she said.

Wackman knows the value of college visits. One of the main goals of AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, is to prepare students in the academic middle for post-secondary learning.

That includes equipping the students with the skills they will need in college along with visiting several schools starting as early as when they are in ninth grade.

“I’ve done a lot of work during the past four years to think very clearly and pragmatically about post-high school steps,” Wackman said. “On the trip we had class, including our last class of more than an hour held in a Subway where students talking through the colleges they had seen, made notes and spoke with each other about their process.”

Each student was provided with a packet of information to help guide them through the evaluation of a college, as the work counted toward high school credit.

The goal is for each student to pick six schools that they will apply for — three if they plan to attend a community college or trade school.

“I’m trying to get them to be thoughtful consumers and also to establish some financial leverage as they think carefully through their choices,” Wackman said.

The students met with college admissions staff along with one professor whom they encountered in a hallway and ended up spending time talking to him as they toured his classroom and office.

After the visits, the students were required to write personal “thank you” notes to all of the people they met.

They were encouraged to include details of what they learned from the meeting and were reminded to sign their first and last name.

“Talking about how a good thank you is specific, not vague and general,” Wackman said. “I tell them that these are important life skills to be taken with them for job interviews and times in their future careers when they are helped by someone.”

Wackman’s daughter, who is narrowing her college choices right now, knows how tough selecting a college can be.

“I believe students need to see multiple colleges to understand the decision,” she said. “As a parent, the whole college process is terrifying, to say the least.”

Because this is such an important step, SES has a college fair night along with bringing guest speakers to talk about issues such as financial aid.

“I truly believe in working together. And so do my SES colleagues,” Wackman said.

The trip wasn’t all serious talk, it was also fun.

After driving to Decorah, Iowa, to visit Luther College, the crew put in at the Cedar River about four miles northwest of Waverly where Wartburg College is located.

Following the Wartburg school visit, which included a stay in the dorms, the group loaded up the canoes and set off again on the Cedar River to Cedar Falls where UNI is located.

After they visited the state university, they camped in a nearby campground.

While about half of the students were new to canoeing, they also exited the experience with a new skill as they went through a canoe workshop under the guidance of an SES staff member who is an expert at handling the boats.

So the students will not only be able to navigate their post-secondary school choice, but also a river.

“This trip was a blast, and I got a lot out of it and I know the students did, too,” Wackman said.

Contact Tad Johnson at [email protected] or at twitter.com/editorTJ.