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Blue Ridge Scholars continue to grow in third year of program

Kameron, Halee, Alexa, and Chase Stone are accustomed to reaching milestones such as a getting their driver's licenses and graduating high school together. It's no surprise since the siblings are part of a set of quintuplets.

"We had birthday parties together, but we each had our own individual cake," Halee Stone said.

On Aug. 20, the four siblings — their brother, Izak, who has cerebral palsy, is enrolled at Gilmer County High School — experienced another landmark moment. They entered the halls of academia for the first time at the University of North Georgia (UNG) as members of the Blue Ridge Scholars.

"The first day was very welcoming as soon as I walked in!" Kameron Stone said. "All of the Blue Ridge staff members were wonderful, helping with any questions and concerns students had."

As Blue Ridge Scholars, the four siblings plus 21 other first-year freshmen will attend classes at UNG's Blue Ridge Campus as part of a cohort to ease the transition from high school into college.

"This program is designed to increase the retention rates and offer support for students, who are predominantly first-generation college students," said Nathan Price, coordinator of Blue Ridge Scholars and assistant professor of political science at UNG.

He said the cohort gives students extra support and offers a low teacher-to-student ratio. The courses also are designed to incorporate service-learning opportunities. Kameron said she is looking forward to those since it builds leadership skills and impacts the community.

"I believe we can change the surrounding community by simply taking the time to evaluate who needs help," she said.

The high-impact practice is working, Price said. Enrollment in Blue Ridge Scholars has increased each year. Two years ago, 15 students started in the program in fall 2016. Last year, 18 students were scholars.

"This year we have 25," Price said, indicating their more active recruiting may have played a role for the nearly 39 percent increase. "We also had one student who wanted to join because he heard the positives through word of mouth."

Sarah Rogers, who was among the first Blue Ridge Scholars cohort, can attest to that. As a resident assistant with the Upward Bound program in June, she shared her experience with students from Gilmer and Johnson high schools.

"I tell people instead of jumping off a diving board into college, I eased into it by walking down the steps and into the pool of water," she said.

Those words and her stories apparently clicked with students from Fannin, Gilmer and Union counties. Rogers said one student enrolled at UNG and signed to be a 2018 Blue Ridge Scholars this fall.

The impact the scholars program and the Blue Ridge Campus is having is not new. Since opening in 2015, enrollment has increase exponentially. After 20 students in the first year, 114 enrolled in fall 2016. The next year, 140 students registered for classes. This year, 160 students are expected.

"It is phenomenal to see the growth happening here," said Sandy Ott, executive director of UNG's Blue Ridge Campus. "The rise in numbers show the demand and need for a college in Blue Ridge, and UNG is meeting that need."

Because of this successes, the Blue Ridge Campus gained notice from Georgia legislators. On May 2, the state earmarked $5.5 million for a new standalone campus in Blue Ridge.

Blue Ridge Scholars and UNG freshmen Cainan Patterson, Hunter Crowder and Nelson Soriero could barely believe the news.

"I'm a little jealous," Soriero said. "I wish we could have access to the new building."

However, the trio who attended high school together, will still experience their first year of college together thanks to the Blue Ridge Scholars. The Stone siblings will experience the same.

"We can tell when we aren't together, so it will be nice to continue through to college together," Alexa Stone said.

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