Helping local high school students think big​​​​

​Now in its second year, College Prep prepares talented, low-income high school students for college

Clockwise from left: De’Ja Wood, Jasmine Walker, Madyson Silver, Edwin McMurray, Marquise Butcher, Meris Saric, Denye Mickens and Markell Lomax dissect sheep brains as part of the College Prep program. Click photo for larger image. (Credit: Joe Angeles/WUSTl Photos)

Bright and hardworking, incoming high school sophomore Aziz Muhammad is determined to get into a great college. But then what?

“There is a lot I don’t know,” Muhammad said. “Nobody in my family went to college, so I don’t have anyone to ask about how to handle school. There’s the Internet and there’s movies, but that’s just people partying. I want to know what it takes to succeed.”

That’s why Muhammad applied to the College Prep Program​ at Washington University in St. Louis. Now in its second year, the free program helps high-achieving high school students with limited financial means get ready for college. For parts of three summers, students live and work at Washington University, where they take courses for college credit, learn about the college application process and discover what life is like on a college campus.

Muhammad said the experience was more challenging — and more fun — than he expected.

“I’ve learned that you have to be accountable,” said Muhammad, who attends Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, part of St. Louis Public Schools. “Like getting up on time — that’s the smallest thing, but it matters a lot. If you don’t wake up on time, you’ll miss the classes that you are paying for.”

“I also made a lot of friends,” Muhammad said. “The college students helped us out, the professors were really helpful. I was intimidated at first. I was afraid everyone would keep to themselves, but the scholars here are good to interact with.”

This year’s cohort of 46 scholars​ includes students from 24 schools. Among them are Dylan Medvik, of Northwest High School in Jefferson County, who wants to be a computer scientist; Porscha Hayes, of Rosati-Kain High School in St. Louis, who wants to be a lexicographer, one who writes and edits dictionaries; David Duncan, of Hazelwood East High School, and Destiny Houston, of McCluer High School, both in north St. Louis County. For Houston, the program provided “a break” from the tensions in her neighborhood, which still is struggling with the shooting death of Michael Brown and the ensuing tension.

“I felt like it was a relief to open up and show people who I really am,” Houston said. ”I want to better myself, and this opportunity has given me a chance to meet students from everywhere.”

The scholars gathered recently for a farewell lunch at College Hall on the South 40 area of campus with their families, Provost Holden Thorp, PhD, and the 25 members of the inaugural College Prep cohort who will remain on campus through July 2. The program has doubled in size, but the goal remains the same, said Leah Merrifield, assistant vice chancellor for community engagement.

“We want students to think big,” Merrifield said. “Maybe their families don’t have a lot of money; maybe their families haven’t been to college, but they can achieve their goals. That belief drives everything we do, from the academic programs to the enrichment activities.”

Rising sophomores Amauri McGuire (left) and Ella Holman learn kickboxing skills. (Credit: Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos)

This year’s new cohort made ethanol in a lab, composed stories in the university’s Writing Center and learned to kickbox.

Meanwhile, returning scholars are taking the college course “Design Thinking,” preparing to take the ACT and dissecting sheep brains. For that experiment, postdoctoral researchers playfully challenged students to identify the parts of brain that could lead to “zombie disease” – aggression, inability to communicate and a voracious appetite for brains.

“Zombies don’t look very coordinated, so maybe their cerebellum plays a role,” offered Meris Saric, an incoming junior from Bayless High School in south St. Louis County.

Saric, who would like to study neuroscience, psychology and sociology, then asked about brain tumors — how they grow, how they are removed, how the brain recovers.

“I thought it would smell worse than it did,” Saric said of the brain. “I’ve never been able to do something like this at school. To me, being here is like a vacation. My friends are like, ‘But you are at school.’ But I love learning new things and being challenged. I literally was counting down the days until I could come back here.”