“Vast" was one of the words on the vocabulary list, and second- and third- graders from Woodland Elementary School put it to good use as they walked the grounds of Saint Leo University during a recent field trip.
"These kids think that a 3,000-student campus is vast," second-grade teacher Nancy Martin said with a chuckle. "They have no idea."
By university standards, Saint Leo might be described as intimate, but for elementary students it is a vast piece of real estate compared to their own campus.
"I like the pool and the church and especially the gym," said Christopher Hendrix, 8, as he lined up with classmates to head to the next stop: the cafeteria. "We don't have a gym at our school."
With Saint Leo students serving as tour guides, the youngsters from Woodland got a glimpse of what college life might look like for them.
Sure, you can talk to kids about going to college in the classroom, said Saint Leo junior Sara Vogel, 21. "But they really can't understand the concept. I think for them to come here and see what it's like is a real eye-opener."
"Now they have a picture when we say 'college,' " Martin said. "They see the library, the abbey, the business building, the gymnasium. They are learning about scholarships; taking in the architecture and the culture. Now we have a few kids who are saying, 'I'm going to go here.' "
That's the idea.
When they grow up
It's all part of a schoolwide motivational theme that has about 850 students at Woodland thinking about what they want to be when they grow up and how to get there.
"Woodland Wranglers, Planning Ahead, Aiming High, College Bound," is the mission statement plastered on bright blue and yellow T-shirts and on signs hung throughout the elementary campus.
That theme is highlighted regularly — during the college spotlight on the school's morning news, through vocabulary lessons with words such as "scholarship," "tuition," "degree" and "campus," and in the black-and-white composition notebook in the school principal's office listing the dreams of every Woodland student to one day be a police officer, teacher, football player, neurosurgeon and even a few princesses. Student council members also push the message to their peers, working hard to raise funds to establish a college scholarship for a graduating Zephyrhills High student who once attended Woodland.
"It's never too early to start thinking about college," said Woodland principal Kimberly Poe, who contacted each of her teachers' alma maters last summer to ask for college swag to post on the hallway bulletin boards.
The idea is to provide hope for students at the Title 1 school who might not be thinking that far ahead. The reality is that students will need some sort of education after high school in order to be successful, said Poe, a true Gator fan who was raised in a single-parent home and earned degrees at the University of South Florida and Saint Leo. "There was never any question that I would go to college. We want to reinforce that message to our students now."
Some motivation today
It's a message not lost on students like Aubrey Hicks, 9, who recently appeared on the morning news to give a shout-out to the day's featured college, the University of South Florida. While Aubrey once thought about being a ballerina or a "horseback rider," these days she has her heart set on being a marine animal trainer — after getting a degree at USF.
"I'd like to work with dolphins, seals and possibly whales," she said. "I'm really interested in a lot of those animals and I think it would be a pleasure to work with them."
Fourth-grader Elijah Garcia, 10, is also thinking about attending USF and perhaps enlisting in the military. "Then maybe I'll be a running back for the Buccaneers."
And there's buy-in from parents such as Elenya Hulbert, a member of the school advisory council whose sons, Kyle, 11, and Austin, 9, attend Woodland.
Both boys got excited about researching different colleges as well as the military academies, Hulbert said. "I think it's motivated them both to do well all year. I see it as being a really great thing for all the kids, that people really believe in them and they can do something with their lives no matter what their parents do or whether they went to college themselves. They're getting the message that they can do anything they set their minds to."