A little over four years ago, a group of eighth-graders stood nervously in the Batte Center, all eyes on them as they became the first cohort inducted into the Wayfind program. They were trailblazers, taking part in a new initiative designed to smooth the path to college for first-generation students.
On Friday, April 28, 10 of those students, seven from Monroe High School and three from Forest Hills High, were back at Wingate, being honored for completing the program. All will now receive full-tuition scholarships to the University, a cumulative value of $1.5 million.
“Wayfind taught us the importance of going to college and being college ready,” Monroe High senior Celina Tovar Castro, who plans to study elementary education at Wingate, told the audience. “As an eighth-grader, I didn’t understand what any of that meant. It would go through one ear and out the other. As a senior, I now see the impact of everything that was being taught to us.”
The program is a unique partnership between Wingate University and Union County Public Schools that prioritizes students who are historically underrepresented in higher education, such as first-generation college students of color. Wayfind welcomes 20 teacher-recommended eighth-graders each year from Monroe and East Union middle schools who have demonstrated academic promise through their grades, school attendance and behavior.
Once accepted, Wayfind scholars receive mentoring and support for the next four and a half years. Those who complete the full mentoring program and meet Wingate’s admission requirements qualify for the full-tuition scholarship.
Tessa Stewart, a Forest Hills High senior who plans to major in finance at Wingate, says she learned a lot about reaching her goals during Camp Wayfind, a summer offering for Wayfind participants. “It taught me to be ambitious,” she told the audience. Stewart said she learned to go beyond involvement to truly engage with others and to keep pushing forward.
The initial seeds of the Wayfind program were planted nearly 20 years ago, when Dr. Rhett Brown was attending a conference, a decade before he would be installed as Wingate’s president. Brown heard a statistic that stuck with him: that some schools have only one guidance counselor for every 700 students. Brown thought that universities could help fill the void.
Fast-forward 10 to 15 years, and the idea emerged again in conversations with Andrew Houlihan, who had been recently hired to lead UCPS. The two moved forward with the creation of a college-access program for first-generation students.
On Friday, that germ of an idea came to fruition. Speaking in place of Dr. Brown, who missed the senior ceremony because of illness, Dr. Jeff Frederick, Wingate’s provost, thanked Houlihan for the forward-thinking partnership and praised UCPS teachers, Wayfind scholars’ parents, Wayfind director Dr. Abby Holland and her team of mentors for making the program into a true difference-maker.
Houlihan offered highlights of the program, sharing how scholars were coached through essay writing, how to create a resume, SAT and ACT prep and much more, all during the midst of the pandemic. He said some scholars had the chance to travel to Los Angeles last month to share their Wayfind experiences at the College Board’s Preparate Conference.
“This is without a doubt a national model that should be replicated in every community,” the superintendent said.
To scholars, he said, “The opportunity promised to you four years ago is about to become a reality.”
Tovar Castro assured the crowd that the opportunity would not be wasted. She closed her remarks with her own promise to parents, teachers and mentors: “We will continue to make everyone proud as college students at Wingate University.”
In addition to Tovar Castro and Stewart, Wayfind scholars headed to Wingate in August are Jose Solis Bello, Alexander Jose-Sanchez, Ramiro Salinas Jr., Alan Capote, Victor Quintanilla, Jorge Gutierrez, Carson Corley and Jordan Galindo.