ST. PETERSBURG — Eleven-year-old Nyla Williams stepped onto her first college campus Friday expecting a tour of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus. But she left with a handmade maraca, a lesson in kindness and the desire to be a future Bull.
She and 42 other fifth-graders from Fairmount Park Elementary came at the invitation of the USFSP College of Education and the local nonprofit Hands 4 Hope — part of an effort to introduce students from low-performing schools to the possibilities found in college.
Organizers took the students to three stations: "multicultural," "science" and "kindness," concluding with a tour of campus and a brown-bag lunch.
The idea was to give them a balanced, holistic experience, said Harris Ambush, community liaison for the USFSP College of Education, who created the program as part of his doctoral work.
"It's not just to offer a college supplement, it's also to offer a deeper sense of learning," he said.
Nyla Williams' group first stepped into the multicultural station, where 14 of her peers made maracas out of plastic eggs and rice and played double dutch jump rope, showcasing games from around the world.
Then the group entered the classroom of Noel Takeuchi, a biological sciences assistant professor, to fiddle with plastic human bones for an anatomy lesson. For many of the students, especially Williams, it was the highlight of the day.
"It's pretty fun," she said, fumbling with a string of vertebrae. Williams filled out a worksheet labeling the bones of the body with her friend, Keyziah Rutherford. Both said they wanted to be pediatricians some day.
"I'd like to deal with real bones, not plastic," Rutherford said.
Emily Strong, a children's ministry leader at First United Methodist Church, shuffled the group from station to station.
"I feel like the STEM is working," she said, referring to science, technology, engineering and math. "Everyone I ask wants to be a scientist or engineer."
At their final station, the students watched an upbeat music video about kindness. They jotted down how they could demonstrate the virtue to their families, their friends, at their schools, in the community, and most important, to themselves.
After, they scrambled outside to write their findings in chalk on the Harbor Walk patio. The ground came to life with colorful mantras:
Kindness is always the answer.
Be kind. Stop Bullying.
If you be kind to others you'll be respectful to yourself.
"A lot of them have a loving spirit," Ambush said. "They don't always have the opportunity to show it."
Fairmount Park is the latest school to participate in the experience. Campbell Park Elementary was the first school to visit, and Ambush plans to work with Melrose and Lakewood elementary schools and Meadowlawn Middle school.
He said the university is working on a grant to offer more programs geared toward middle school students.
"We have to show them that learning, kindness and taking care of yourself is part of a balanced lifestyle," he said. "We're really working hard to fund these for the kids."
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.