Brian Merrell wants to be the first college graduate in his family.
The 18-year-old said that growing up in Liberty City gave him an early focus to work hard to eventually improve his family’s situation. Over the years, due to changing schools and losing motivation, his grades and his performance slipped.
But Merrell, and other students like him, have found a place to prepare themselves for college through Norland High School’s College Readiness Club.
Merrell serves as president of the group, which started in 2011 and has about 20 members. The two instructors leading the students, Eva Robinson and Amy Knight, said they focus their efforts on practical and hands-on college preparation.
“Things like timeliness to meetings, having their things ready for meetings, having their applications started, working on scholarships, high grades — everyone’s always working toward that college achievement,” Robinson said.
The students’ names all appear on a “college readiness board,” which includes progress markers like their first quarter grade-point average and whether they’ve received three letters of recommendation or their required amount of community service hours.
Part of the hands-on prep has included trips to college campuses. Earlier this year, the students took a two-day trip to visit Florida State, Central Florida, the University of Florida and Florida A&M. The club members also traveled to Boston last year — a trip that some students described as “life-changing.”
“The trip refocused me. It gave me newfound hope for my post-secondary education,” Merrell said.
The students visited Harvard, Tufts, Northeastern and Boston University, where they got to sleep in the dorms and eat cafeteria food. And while exposing them to these colleges in person was important, seeing the impact that leaving Florida had on the students was even more rewarding for Robinson and Knight.
“By exposing them to these colleges in these areas that are different from Miami, we’re hoping to also bring back students that are engaged in helping their peers,” Robinson said.
The club is now planning a four-day trip to Chicago in May to visit Northwestern University, Loyola University (Robinson’s alma mater) and the University of Chicago, along with other schools and a trip to the Field Museum of Natural History.
As with the trip to Boston, the club used the website DonorsChoose.com to fund their trip, but they need more financial assistance.
The group has been able to fund the lodging for students and some other costs, but has not secured airplane tickets for all of the club members. They’ve reached out to local organizations and have a GoFundMe page where they are accepting donations.
The club’s members have become well known around the school in the past year and have been accepted to schools across Florida including FAMU, the University of Florida and the University of Miami. Their teachers say they’ve also been more involved, beyond the out-of-state trips.
“This year it was more of a consistent group of people throughout the year — there’s much more accountability this year,” Knight said.
The students have a variety of interests. Senior Jahim Lawrence, 18, wants to study biology at UF while senior Tashara Hall, 18, plans to study pharmacy and marketing at FAMU.
“At first I only saw the football aspect of the school, but when I went there to visit academically and saw how it was that’s what really changed my mind,” Lawrence said.
As the College Readiness Club grows, its members hope to reach out to more students at Norland and emphasize that members don’t have to be traditional “bookworms” as long as they’re willing to do the work.
“We’ve got some people willing to stick around after school and do what they have to do to succeed and go to that post-secondary education,” Hall said.
And as for Merrell, a junior who’s interested in Howard University, Stonehill College, the University of South Carolina and other schools, he wants to see his fellow students show a more dedicated interest in their lives after high school.
“I would like to see kids display a drive to go to college even though it may stray from the usual course in their family,” he said.
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