TAMPA — They are among Hillsborough County schools' finest — hand-picked for their gumption and eagerness to make something of their lives.
But there was a different emotion on display Monday among many of the 200 students attending a college exploration workshop at the Children's Board.
"I'm scared," said Elna Marseille, a Blake High School sophomore, sharing worries about going into debt to pay for college.
"Sometimes, I think about quitting," she said, referring to her studies. "The economy is so bad."
All of the students are part of the district's AVID program, an initiative designed to support middle-achieving students with counseling and tutoring, and nudge them into advanced or honors classes. Many come from low-income backgrounds and would be the first in their families to attend college.
They've had their first taste of success, improving grades and earning some notoriety at their schools. All wrote essays or gave speeches, with the top 25 at each school winning a spot at Monday's workshop, said Faith Miller-Burston, who directs AVID in the district's high schools.
But it's tough out there, and student after student said he or she was approaching the idea of college with a healthy skepticism.
"I want to go, but I'm not sure," said Louis Saavedra, a King High junior who hopes to work in health care. "I don't know if I'll be able to pay the whole tuition."
"How can having a degree that you're not using help you be successful?" another student asked a high-powered panel of speakers.
Shawn Robinson smiled broadly at that question.
He earned four college degrees, including two doctorates, on the road to becoming president of the Ybor City campus of Hillsborough Community College. He also worked for nearly a decade at Eckerd Drugs while he was studying, teaching, and climbing his way to the top.
"I changed my mind a bunch of times, but I stayed focused on my goals," he told the students.
"Learn the person's job that you want to be," he added. "If they wear baggy pants, you should. But they're (probably) not."
The students got advice on writing resumes, finding scholarships and choosing college loans. Speakers encouraged them to look for grants before taking on debt, and consider fields like teaching or the military which waive loans in return for service.
The workshop was co-sponsored by the school district, Children's Board, Bright Beginnings and KnowHow2GoTampaBay.org, a nonprofit group dedicated to preparing students for college.
For some students, at least, the advice was well timed.
Standing in line to get a speaker's business card, Elna Marseille, the Blake sophomore, said she was still worried about finances. But she was excited now, too.
"I want to become a psychologist and a nurse," she said. "And if I become a nurse, I know for a fact I want to become a doctor. That's my plan."