Sunday, January 22, 2017

College Tour Transformations with We Just Imagine

Admissions office at University of Virginia

Many people look at 10-20 houses before making such a life changing purchase.  But many children from families of modest income don’t get the opportunity to shop colleges as they would houses.  A virtual tour, a college brochure, a college fair -- none give a prospective student the same kind of  up-front viewpoint as actually being there.  The average buyer would never purchase a home without visiting and talking to the people in the neighborhood, but many college students head off to a  place without really knowing what other options exists.  Through an amazing organization, We Just Imagine, my son and a group of amazing young students, have been able to see possibilities that may not have been on their radars.  When it was time for me to head to college, I was limited to local universities.  My mother didn’t own a car and the only way we could visit colleges was via public transportation.  I was desperate to attend college in New York City, but unable to really explore it as an option.

Through We Just Imagine, this group of students have visited close to 15 colleges throughout Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia!  Along the way, they have matured and become seasoned and very educated about the college process.  They started out sitting in admissions offices needing to be prepped with questions to ask, now they have their own, and good ones too!  Once we were about to be whisked off on a walking tour, one of the Just Imagine students asked the guide, “aren’t you going to sit us down to give us the admissions talk first.”  Now, they had expectations!  The feelings and desires to attend college have grown stronger, but more importantly they are becoming more deeply connected to what it is they need to pursue their educational goals and what environment will best support those endeavors.  

I am a staunch supporter of HBCUs, as a proud graduate of Howard University, but I ain’t gonna lie, I fell in love with Duke University.  It seemed like a place where you could make any educational endeavor come true.  A possibility I never knew existed.  But now these young people do. KingMan loved Atlanta, especially Clark-Atlanta's Dual Engineering program, which would allow him to graduate with a Master's Degree in Engineering.

Unlike many college tours, which cost a fortune, and throw a bunch of random people together for a weekend, We Just Imagine has invested in a small group having this experience together.  The students stay overnight in a hotel, separated by gender, and get to know each other on a more personal level.  Cell phones are confiscated at night and essay homework is assigned in the evening to ensure that serious thought is given to the day's experiences.

The King Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
 Karim Ewing-Boyd, an Advisory Board Member of We Just Imagine and travel chaperone, always ensures that there is a historical field trip and discussion woven into our college tours.  When we visited his alma mater, Morehouse College, we also visited the King Memorial Museum.  

Visiting the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King gave his first sermon.

Posing in front of the Greensboro Four on a visit to the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, NC.

A monument dedicated to the famous Greensboro Four at North Carolina A&T
In North Carolina, we visited the International Civil Rights Museum, which was an amazing experience.  The historical significance that HBCUs have played in the historical movement of African people is made real through these visits.  Students were able to make connections between the sit-ins and the students who attended North Carolina A &T.

At the end of a long day of walking, sometimes in the rain, on college campuses, we always end with a nice dinner and a discussion in the lounge area.  These are the times I love the most.  We focus on real issues that students of color will face, including lack of diversity and institutional racism.  Our visit to Virginia State University inspired one such discussion.  The students saw a stark contract in state funding and support of University of Virginia, compared to Virginia State University.  When we pulled into the sleepy town of Petersburg, Virginia, it didn’t look like a place to find a college. But once the group got out on campus, what they encountered were bright, friendly and enthusiastic college students who were passionate about their school and education.  

Quenyana Gray, a bubbly student from Richmond, whose mother also attended Virginia State University, was our tour guide.  This young honors student, is also a sports management intern and very involved in campus organizations.  She encouraged the young people to get involved in college to make it the best experience ever! She must have walked with us for more than two hours, stopping and asking various organizations that happened to be on campus to chat with us.  Students from these organizations enthusiastically obliged.  Students from the engineering department, Greek organizations, and members of the music fraternity Kappa Kappa Si gladly shared pearls of wisdom with the young people of We Just Imagine. Ms. Gray was the best tour guide of ANY of the colleges we visited. 

Dressed for success on the campus of North Carolina A&T
I've noticed that the more colleges we visited, the more comfortable this group has become with the idea of attaining a degree and what they need to do to make it happen.  More importantly, the more colleges we visit, the more likely a student is to find a fit – the kind of perfect fit that leads to not just getting into college, but actually staying, enjoying the experience, and getting the degree.  It’s not a “piece of paper,” as some say, but it is an opportunity to have one of the most rewarding experiences of your young adult life.  It is a time to focus on discovery, research, meeting new people, traveling abroad, joining campus clubs, playing sports and building the kind of foundation that will serve them well in adulthood.

A restaurant on the campus of Hampton University where Rosa Parks used to waitress.

The waterfront at Hampton University

We Just Imagine has helped these amazing students visit colleges from just about every category, including colleges that may not even have been on the radar, such as Norfolk State University.  Witnessing a young person find a possible fit is a beautiful sight to behold.  

A BIG thank you to founder Abby Sondak who had this crazy idea that everyone should have these opportunities, regardless of income.  We Just Imagine started out as an organization whose aim was to send urban youth to sleepover summer camps that they may otherwise not be able to afford.  A win-win situation, the camps become more diverse and We Just Imagine students enjoy amazing summers.  The program has since grown to include community service, ACT prep and college tours.  The idea is to cultivate young people through camp and leadership experiences that will lead to successful college experiences.  She’s on to something.  Something really BIG.  After attending three college tours as a parent chaperone, walking for hours on campuses and listening to their hopes, dreams and aspirations, I have become vested too.  I want to see them succeed.  Most of all, I want them to stay connected once they choose a college, and after they graduate.  In fact, I hope they remain life-long friends.  This group of future college students have become savvy college shoppers, and they are about to take some campus by storm.  Just you wait and see.


  1. What a wonderful opportunity for these young people...thanks for sharing.

  2. Love the photos. Someone's looking like SGA President. Thanks for sharing.

  3. SGA President - Lol! I do hope he gets active on campus. He knows how important it is to carry the torch.

  4. This appeared to be a great experience for him! Also, it gives him a realistic view of the options college students have to get the education that 'they want' and not what is expected of them. If they are paying, they should seek an environment that will support their success.

  5. Nita you are right. These students are now in the mindset of finding the right fit to achieve their goals, not begging some school to "let them in." They are all brilliant, determined and accomplished. Any school would be lucky to have them. They will succeed. I have no doubt about that.

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