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Blue Ridge Scholars seek more service-oriented students

About 15 University of North Georgia students are participating in the Blue Ridge Scholars program this year. The students were interviewed, which is a new part of the selection process for the cohort-style program.

Last year, University of North Georgia (UNG) student Kameron Stone and her fellow Blue Ridge Scholars learned a large majority of third-graders in Fannin County were not reading at grade level.

Surprised at the numbers in their community, the 25 Blue Ridge Scholars decided to intervene at the second-grade level. They devised a lesson plan around specific books and executed it by reading to them on regular basis, said Dr. Nathan Price, coordinator for the Blue Ridge Scholars program and assistant professor of political science and international affairs.

"Prior to being in the Blue Ridge Scholars at UNG, I had no idea only about 35% of children in the county were considered proficient readers," said Stone, a sophomore is from Ellijay, Georgia. "I am beyond grateful my classmates and I had the chance to impact students' lives in some way."

Encouraged by his students and the program's impact, Price re-examined the Blue Ridge Scholars' selection process. He wanted to find students enthusiastic about the service projects. The answer was to interview the students who applied to the Blue Ridge Scholars program.

Blue Ridge Scholars are full-time freshmen who receive extra academic support in the first year and participate in service-learning activities. As a cohort, they have a lower teacher-to-student ratio to help ease the transition from high school to college.

"The mission is the same," Price said. "It is a leadership program designed to build scholars though engagement."

The new interview process is meant to determine if the program is the right fit for students, he said.

"We get an idea of who they are and what they want to accomplish, and they get an idea about the program and its requirements," Price said.

The program has also increased its recruitment at middle and high schools by connecting with the Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen (REACH) Scholars program. REACH Georgia is a needs-based mentoring and scholarship program that provides promising students the support to graduate from high school and achieve post-secondary success.

"It's a program that has a similar focus," Price said. "We hope it will make recruiting students easier."

REACH scholars are selected in the eighth grade and paired with a mentor. Upon graduation, they are awarded financial scholarships.

Engaging students in the eighth grade will help build the Blue Ridge Scholars' profile, Price said. Their engagement with the community through service projects from the past three years is working. The students have worked with Fannin County Family Connection to help meet community needs; Teen Maze, which helps high school students consider consequences of their choices; a little free library; and the Get Georgia Reading Campaign to promote literacy.

"In the first and second year of the program, no one had an idea of what the Blue Ridge Scholars were," Price said. "Now they do."

The students' service to the community and its impact on them is noticeable.

"Some of the students were petrified when they went into the second-grade classrooms to read to the students," Price said, explaining he had to provide extra encouragement. "By the end of the year, they   took charge of the classroom and lessons. They knew how to adjust the lessons for time. They had confidence in that. Through that engagement, they gained self-confidence I could see."

Stone was thrilled to read to the children and make lessons plans, especially since she is pursuing a degree in early childhood and special education. The bonus was the reaction from the children.

"I loved seeing the kids' faces light up when something sparked their interest or to see them thinking through a puzzling scenario in the text," she said. "The goal was to show students learning, reading and class discussions can be fun. By carrying those tools with them, they can also help the community and those around them."

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