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Just chillin' on the quad: middle grades students in college.

Exposing students to real life college experiences while they are still in middle school may seem like an odd or even outrageous idea, yet when we consider the profound and lasting impact of student achievement and learning at this age, it becomes imperative to begin to think of ways to engage students in authentic, relevant learning. According to the National Middle School Association ([now the Association for Middle Level Education], 2010), students in the middle grades need active learning that is challenging, exploratory, and "hands on." As most schools in the United States take up the challenge of implementing Common Core State Standards, it is important to recognize and understand how the standards are anchored in college and career readiness skills. More importantly, middle grades students themselves need to understand how college readiness is central to their learning. The idea of college can become a reality for middle grades students when they are exposed to a college campus and engaged in authentic learning that is challenging and stimulating.

This kind of early college exposure is particularly critical for high-need students in urban areas.

This article synthesizes 5 years of research related to one urban school's seventh grade students' understandings of college and college life following participation in a week-long college experience called "College Immersion." College Immersion is often simply referred to as "Immersion" by students and staff, and will be abbreviated as such in this paper. Immersion is an example of a developmentally appropriate and responsive program that highlights a unique collaboration between an urban area college and an urban middle school. This article describes what students reported learning through their college experiences and explains what the findings might mean for these students as they move through high school and beyond.


The middle level years are a critical time for ensuring future success in college and careers. Being ready for college means having key knowledge, skills and dispositions to take on college life and work; although these areas of readiness inform and influence each other (Conley, 2012; Tinto, 1998), most of the literature on readiness focuses on key cognitive skills and academic knowledge as measures of readiness, even for middle school students. For example, a research study from American College Testing (2008) reported that students who do not meet crucial benchmarks in reading and math by the time they leave eighth grade are likely to fall further behind academically as they progress through high school. One of the key insights to emerge from American College Testing's research was the recommendation that educators focus on programs that improve students' college and career readiness skills in the middle school years in order to improve posthigh school educational and career oppor tunities. In a more recent report from American College Testing (2012), Radunzel and Noble tracked the relationship between college readiness factors and college success and provided documentation to support the importance of monitoring students' college readiness from Grade 8 through high school.

The issue of college readiness related to academics is especially important for students of color in urban areas who continue to be underrepresented at colleges and university: Many of these students have little access to the kinds of challenging courses needed for high school and college (Tierney, Colyar, & Corwin, 2003; Venezia, Kirst, & Antonio, 2003), including critically important courses in higher level math and science (Trusty, Spenser, & Carney, 2005). Lack of access to these courses creates unequal opportunities. Many students of color fall behind in middle school and continue to fall further behind in high school (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2012; Balfanz, 2009; Balfanz, Bridgeland, Moore, & Fox, 2010).

While academic factors are undeniably crucial in understanding students' readiness for college, affective aspects of readiness, including awareness of college majors and career goals, and awareness of college activities, discourses, and social opportunities, are also critical for students (Cushman, 2007; Tinto, 2000; White & Lowenthal, 2011). Students of color especially often lack adequate resources and information about college and careers (Tierney et al., 2003), creating a gap that widens inequalities in college access at a time most critical for future planning. Furthermore, lack of opportunities for students to develop the skills and dispositions needed for college readiness, defined by Maruyama (2012) as "an accumulation of knowledge and experiences that prepare students for college" (p. 253), places high need students at an academic disadvantage even when they do gain access to postsecondary institutions of learning.

Engaging middle grades students in planning for their future is important; research indicates that middle grades students who participate in career development activities tend to make better and more informed decisions about high school, and these decisions impact future college and career opportunities (Akos, Konold, & Niles, 2004; Arrington, 2000; Osborn & Reardon, 2006; Trusty et al., 2005). Balfanz's (2009) research highlights how the middle grades years are especially critical for our most vulnerable students. This is the age when "students in high-poverty environments are either launched on the path to high school graduation or knocked off track" (p. 7), thereby turning an "achievement gap" into an "achievement chasm" (p. 6). Providing college experiences at the middle level can activate an interest in college life, affording even our most vulnerable and underrepresented students the opportunity to envision college and think about what they must do in middle and high school in order to achieve their goals. Such a focus on postsecondary planning is especially important for first generation college-going students from urban areas (Reid & Moore, 2008).

Other affective components of college readiness include dispositions to engage in schoolrelated activities and academic discourses (White & Lowenthal, 2011), yet research shows that the middle level years tend to be the point at which students begin to disengage from school and school-related activities (Trusty et al., 2005). As an important aspect of college readiness and middle grades curricula, the idea of engagement is also a central idea behind "Active Learning," characterized as the most successful pedagogical approach to instruction for students in the middle level (National Middle School Association, 2010). In this approach, students actively work together as a class and in small social groups to solve problems and engage in activities that produce and generate information: Such social interaction leads to better academic understandings and success (Shore, Ray, & Goolkasian, 2013). Through engagement in school activities and curriculum, students work with others to develop an awareness of college expectations and through their hands-on experiences in a college setting, begin to cultivate motivation and build capacity for meeting those expectations in the future.

Immersing seventh grade students in college life for a week addresses their developmental need for active learning and affords them a sense of the rigors and expectations of college life. Mindful that an unsuccessful early college experience may negatively impact students' self-esteem and future academic success (Alaie, 2011), students' first experiences of college life take place in a supportive, caring environment that is also rich with challenging material and high standards--components of education that are especially essential for traditionally marginalized students (Reid & Moore, 2008; Rivera-McCutchen, 2012). In College Immersion, students gain real exposure to college work and professors' ways of teaching and communicating, providing an authentic and challenging college experience in a supportive environment to help build students' capacity to begin to develop the dispositions and motivation to build college readiness.

The research questions guiding this study of seventh grade students were designed to examine if and how the College Immersion experience did or did not engage the students, almost all of whom were first generation college-going and from underrepresented groups, in producing and generating information about college level work and life. The researchers asked, "What understandings of college did students gain after participating in College Immersion?" The following subquestions helped capture a more fine-grained understanding of students' experiences:

1. What were middle grades students' understandings of college-level work after experiencing College Immersion?

2. What were middle grades students' understandings of college life after experiencing College Immersion?

3. How did middle grades students describe their college experiences?


This study is informed by a constructivist epistemology that regards knowledge as socially constructed and understanding as a matter of social practice. Drawing on traditions of philosophy that regard constructs such as "truth" and "knowledge" as specific to inquirers in a particular sociocultural context (i.e. hermeneutical phenomenology), researchers in this study used qualitative research methods to gain understandings of phenomena related to participants' perspectives (Merriam, 2009; Patton, 1990). Understandings of experiences were built from time with students in the field, student surveys and field observations.

As the theoretical orientation for this research is based on constructivism, its findings are supported by "coherence" rather than "truth" (Atkins, 1988). The burden of this research, therefore, is to find coherence for descriptions of students' experiences in the College Immersion program. Coherence provides a lens to examine the validity of findings related to this research. For example, are inferences drawn from the data credible and confirmable (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000) and do inferences cohere into a credible, confirmable argument (Hammersly & Atkinson, 1995)?

Findings related to this research emphasize understanding the meaning of students' subjective experiences in a particular program in an attempt to gain an understanding of their conceptual world (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007) and the knowledge of this world that they construct through experiences. Looking across over 450 students' participation in the same program over 5 years helped build an understanding of their shared experiences. What picture of college life and expectations did students build after being immersed in college life for a full week?

With constructivism as a guiding epistemology, the act of bringing middle grades students to college for a week became an integral aspect of the research process. When students, particularly middle grades students, experience activities in authentic contexts, they actively construct meaning and knowledge (Beane, 1993; Randler & Hulde, 2007; Willis, 2007).


This qualitative research study used naturalistic inquiry (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) and qualitative research methods (Merriam, 2009) to gain insights into the ways in which the Immersion program, held in the first or second week of June during students' regular school year, did or did not figure in students' developing understandings of college life. The Immersion experience included all seventh grade students (approximately 80) attending the Inquiry School over a 5-year period. The researchers examined and analyzed 5 years of surveys taken by seventh grade students who had experienced the Immersion program (450 surveys in total, 2007-2011). The researchers also analyzed daily field notes written by the program developer and coordinator (first author) who assumed the role of participant-observer in the research study from 2007-2009 and remained with students from start to finish the entire week.

Research Site: The College-School Partnership at the Inquiry School

The Inquiry School, a pseudonym for the school site, is located in an urban area in the Northeastern U.S. While the school serves Grades 6-12, this study focuses on the middle level population. The diverse school community of learners is made up of students who are 38% Asian/South Asian, 26% Latino or Hispanic, 18% White, and 17% Black. Over 50% of students attending the Inquiry School speak another language at home. More than 25% of the student body qualifies for special educational services and 65% qualify for free or reduced lunch. In 2012 the school graduated its first class; as with the class graduating in 2013, 100% of the students went on to 2- or 4-year colleges.

The school is part of the Early College High School movement with a mission to serve students in Grades 6-12 and prepare young people of all ability levels to earn up to 60 college credits while still in high school. The school opened in the fall of 2005 as part of a new small schools movement in the area. From its inception, it had two key partners: A local 4-year college and the Early College Initiative--a national movement launched with grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the development of college-school partnerships. The mission of the Inquiry School was to recruit struggling students, students with Individual Education Plans, English language learners and other students who were underrepresented at 4-year colleges and give them an opportunity to earn college credits while still in high school. The school's academic program included multiple and ongoing opportunities for students to become aware of and consider career interests and possible future goals (Rivera & Schaefer, 2009; Schaefer & Rivera, 2011). In this site, all seventh grade students (approximately 80 students each year) were invited to College Immersion regardless of grades and behavior. The Immersion experience was held in June, providing the culminating activity for the middle school that literally brought the students and college partners together for one full week.

Program Description

While both seventh and eighth grade students participate in the College Immersion program, this article focuses specifically on the seventh grade, describing students' first encounter with college while still in middle school. Students in grade seven are immersed in the college experience all day, every day, for a full week. They walk, take the bus, or get a ride to the college each day, attend a morning college lecture and attend a week-long 2-hour class in an area of personal interest (i.e. physics, neuroscience, psychology, computers, history, geology). Students remain together as a cohort, with their regular classroom teacher available as needed, for the entire experience.

All Immersion classes are taught by college professors; professors are invited to participate in the College Immersion program based on recommendations from the college-school planning committee. This committee meets once a month and is comprised of college and school stakeholders. From the college, these stakeholders include the associate provost, the dean of education, a college-school liaison and 15-20 professors from across the university. Representatives from the school include the school principal, assistant principal, a special education teacher and one other teacher. Prior to the start of Immersion, recommended professors are invited to write course descriptions with topics they hope will appeal to middle grades students. Students select their top three course choices for the 2-hour small class (their "college major"). All students receive either their first or second choice. Professors whose classes are selected by students are invited to a professional development session where Inquiry School teachers help them understand the developmental needs of middle grades learners and help professors design teaching strategies and homework assignments for their week-long 10-hour course.

During Immersion, the day begins at 9 A.M. with an hour-long college lecture. Topics for the weekly hour-long lectures have included natural disasters, Greek mythology and musicology. Then from 10:00-12:00 students go to their "major" class. Lunch is an hour long and students spend it with "real" college students in the college cafeteria. In the afternoon students engage in a variety of activities. They might participate in an art class, attend a physical education class, use the science labs or visit the college library for research (see Appendix A for sample schedule).

Data Sources

Various kinds of data were collected in order to gain multiple perspectives on students' experiences in the program and the understandings of college work and life that emerged following their participation. Sources of data included field notes, field observations, and 5 years of survey data.

The field notes and observations were recorded by the first author, who was also the Inquiry School's college liaison (a role unique to the Early College High School that serves to strengthen the partnership between the school and college) from 2005-2009. She was instrumental in conceptualizing, organizing and running the first 3 years of the Immersion program. From 2007 through 2009, she engaged as a participant observer in the Immersion program. As someone who worked at both the school and the college, she was familiar to the Inquiry School students and gave the welcome address at the first lecture of the week. She attended each "major" 2-hour class at least once, ate lunch with students and accompanied them to their various afternoon activities. As a participant-observer, she wrote detailed field notes about the students and deep descriptions of her own experiences. In 2010, the first author left the college liaison position and no longer served as the College Immersion program coordinator. Data collection and analysis for years 2010 and 2011 relied solely on survey data.

Each year, on the last day of the week-long program, students took a survey that contained eight open-ended questions about their experiences in Immersion (see Appendix B). In some years, students were unable to complete the survey on the last day of Immersion, and completed it during advisory on the Monday of their return to the Inquiry School. From 20072011 the researchers collected and coded 450 of these open-ended surveys. The college liaison collected all of the surveys, either directly after the last Immersion experience or on Monday after advisory.

Data Analysis

Results were analyzed across 5 years of data (2007-2011). Field notes collected from 2007-2009 were also coded. Researchers com pared survey data with field notes in order to develop categories and ultimately concepts (Charmaz, 2000) that helped them understand the recurring themes more deeply. Both researchers were familiar with coding protocols and looked across 450 surveys to locate common categories and identify particular themes (Charmaz, 2000; Ely, 2002). They coded separately, and then compared notes to locate similar and different categories. Using open coding procedures (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), students' surveys were read carefully and researchers generated names and ideas to describe what students were saying about their experiences. For the second round, the analysis included the field notes and observations; preliminary categories were negotiated. Axial coding was used to merge redundant categories and look for ideas that did not "fit" any emerging category. Several patterns were apparent in the initial analysis: For example, students' enthusiasm for the program and their desire to go to college emerged from nearly every survey analyzed. Other patterns became clear as the researchers negotiated categories and conducted more fine-grained analysis. For example, the idea that students used the College Immersion experience as a platform to think about their future aspirations was a negotiated theme. This "thematic analysis" (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) helped the researchers understand the salient categories that emerged from students' perceptions about college work and college life.

Data analysis ended when no new patterns or insights were discerned. The resultant themes represent a close look at students' understandings of college life following their experiences in a week-long program, a look that is grounded in students' observations about their experiences.


Findings suggest that after experiencing a week of college, middle level students begin developing a college-going identity. This identity is built around four pertinent themes that were created from coding categories: (1) Students displayed positive feelings toward college, (2) College Immersion helped make the strange familiar, (3) Students reframed and expanded their academic identity, and, (4) Students looked toward the future. These themes interrelate in important ways and offer a grounded look at students' emerging identity as a college student in the context of their perceptions of college life following a week in the College Immersion program. Each overarching theme is supported by subcategories that help illuminate particular threads of understandings expressed by students.

Theme One: "IAm Excited for College!" Students Display Positive Feelings Toward College
   I thought this was an awesome week and I loved it. I thought having
   a taste of college life was really cool. I wish it was longer and I
   didn't have to go back to school. I'm going to miss being able to
   have lunch outdoors and doing all this cool stuff ... I liked being
   able to be more on my own and being treated more like an adult,
   lunch, and just chillin [sic] on the quad.

The theme statement "I am excited for college"! captures the way students felt about their experiences during and after the College Immersion program. Although the most striking feature of students' written thoughts, ideas and feelings about Immersion was one of enthusiasm, it did not start out that way. On the opening day of Immersion (2007), the first field note read, "Nervous and excited students kept close to their teachers' elbows and bumped into each other as they consulted maps and schedules." Friday's field notes from that same year were quite different: "It feels like students are kings of the campus, chatting on their way to class, laughing with friends, finding their way to bathrooms and classrooms with practiced ease." On surveys students signaled their feelings with different words. The most frequently used word was "fun," followed closely by the word "love," accompanied by liberal uses of exclamation points and capital letters: "I'd [sic] LOVED to go to college. I really want to do this again." Another student filled her survey with large caps: I LOVED THE PROGRAM! and another student wrote, "I learned a lot about college and how it works. It was FUN!"

These areas of enthusiasm overlap. The idea of "fun" is fleshed out in the subcategories that reflect salient areas of student excitement. These areas include lunch, freedom, getting treated like a college student, and feeling special.

Lunch. Lunchtime for students in their regular school was highly structured and routinized. Students waited on lines, received the food of the day, and sat at an assigned table. The college cafeteria broke the frame of lunchtime: Lunch at the college gave students the chance to choose food from a variety of options and for many, this was the first time they made their own dietary decisions. Their comments show how much they enjoyed this: "Lunch time [was my favorite] because it was a long time and buying lunch and eating lunch with my friends, surrounded by college students was interesting." Students went back for refills, chatted with their friends, listened to music on the usually forbidden electronic devices, and when they were finished, went out into the adjacent courtyard where they continued to chat or play ball. Although they were followed, discreetly, by one of their regular school teachers, they did not seem to notice--or if they did, they did not note it in the surveys. In fact, the idea or feeling of freedom ran through the pertinent data on being "excited for college."

Freedom. Each student had a detailed map of the college campus along with their teachers' cell phone numbers. All knew to report to the dean of education's office if they were lost. In order to comply with state and city law, a classroom teacher was stationed right outside of each professor's classroom. Students made no mention of these safety nets when they talked about their "freedom:" Over 5 years of examining survey data, not one student mentioned the presence of their classroom teachers in the college environment. Instead they wrote comments like, "I liked that we were able to walk around the campus by ourselves. It gave us more freedom and we felt independent." Another student wrote, "I liked that we were given a lot of freedom. We would have to come on time [to college] we got to go to lunch and eat good food in the cafeteria." Students embraced the freedom and some of behaviors they observed among college students. As observed in field notes, "students address their teachers as 'professor,' and bring coffee to their lecture classes." Students clearly reveled in their freedom to eat, drink and go to class and then, in their free time, just "chill on the quad." As they mixed more and more with regular college students in common areas, they began to envision themselves as college students, and many reported that their professors treated them as such.

Getting Treated Like a College Student. For most students, attending their first lecture class was their first time in an auditorium-style classroom, and many could not stop themselves from twirling around in what they called the "floating chairs." But the moment the professor turned on the PowerPoint and spoke, students became serious. The notes and pens came out and even when the lectures were somewhat esoteric, almost every student assiduously took notes. When students talked about their "take-aways" from the Immersion program, many referred to the "stuff" they learned in these lectures. On Friday, students took a brief 10-question quiz administered and graded by the lecturing professor. Although students knew the "quiz" did not count, as college students they took it seriously.

Students wrote insights such as, "It [Immersion] showed me how to behave as a college student and what to expect. It was an enjoyable experience which helped every student individually. I learned a lot here." Students also observed that their own teachers seemed to treat them differently: "I liked feeling older and how as a seventh grader they treat me like a college kid. I liked being taught like a college student and that our [Inquiry School] teachers didn't treat us like seventh graders." Students were well aware and somewhat appreciative of their privilege as seventh grade students in college.

Feeling Special. Some students saw the Immersion program as part of the privilege related to their attendance at an Early College High School, while others just saw it as a special program of which they were lucky to be a part: "The college immersion program was a great experience because I got to do something that a normal seventh grader doesn't normally do." The program separates this group of students from other "normal seventh graders," and makes them feel special: "I think it's a valuable experience because you are one out of 81 students who get to go to college at seventh grade already. It's also because no one really has a chance to experience a full week of college at this age." Students seemed to sense that being in college gave them an edge in the arena of college competition. As one wrote, the Immersion program "let's [sic] us be a step ahead of those going to college since we know how it's like." Students coveted the insider college knowledge, or as one student called an "inside view" that they developed in the 5 days they spent on campus.

While students experiencing college may feel "a step ahead" and special, they also believe that their experiences in college prepares them for a possible college experience in the future. Following their Immersion experience, students expressed a level of comfort with the idea of college and were especially proud of how easily they navigated the campus after a week of classes.

Theme Two: "I Learned How it Felt to Be in College!" Making the Strange Familiar

Although many of the students had been on the college campus for tours or events such as graduations, plays or concerts, they were quickly aware that attending classes on the college campus gave them a very different perspective. Going to college gave them a chance to navigate the campus, attend a real lecture, go to a longer college class (2 hours), interact with professors and learn bits and pieces of college level subjects. These aspects of College Immersion emerged as important to students, because they helped make what was formerly "strange" familiar. Students were literally immersed in the language and culture of college and appreciated their own developing knowledge of college life that included navigating the campus, understanding the college lecture experience, and getting to know professors.

Navigating the Campus. As seen in the previous theme, students enjoyed the physical freedom involved in Immersion. Many students made direct connections between their ability to navigate the campus and feeling like a college student: "This program was important since it showed me what a college class was like and how it felt to go from class to class." Students also took comfort in their knowledge of the physical campus. Even by the second morning, when they met under the great tree in front of the main entrance so that their teachers could take attendance, the first-day anxiety was replaced by developing knowledge of the buildings and understanding of the longer classes and daily schedule. As one student wrote, "I got to experience going around a college campus with a college schedule and at the second day we knew our way around the place without help." Another student explained, "It helped us see the college building[s] and what we will feel like in college so we know what to expect when we actually get there." Students' confidence in navigating the campus helped them imagine a future when they would be walking from building to building and from class to class on the same campus as "real" college students.

College Lectures and Classes. The daily 2-hour classes were designed to help students experience challenging, yet accessible college-level learning. The college lectures were somewhat different. Many students think of lectures when they think of college, and we felt it was important to give them that experience. Students began each day of Immersion with a 55 minute college lecture. The same professor lectured on a specific theme for the entire week. Many students engaged in intense note-taking behaviors in an effort to access some of the more challenging information. The lecture hall experience helped students feel prepared: "The lecture made me feel like I learned the most because of the information we learned. we [sic] know what to do now and what the proffesors [sic] want from their students. It also helps because of how the professors and the other students treat you in the college." In fact, when students were asked to describe the part of the Immersion program where they learned the most, many simply listed concepts and facts that they'd learned in the lectures: "I learned about different kinds of volcanoes and the ring of fire. I also learned about hurricanes such as the strongest point of the hurricane--I learned about beach erosion and types of rocks."

Another aspect of college that became familiar to students was the length of the classes. Up until this point, each class in middle school was fewer than 50 minutes. Immersion's 2-hour classes gave students a sense of what it was like to learn in one class for 120 minutes. In order to scaffold this first long classroom experience, students selected the course that was most personally interesting; most received their first choice and were pleased with their longer classes.

The other aspect of college life with which students became familiar was the different levels of work involved. There were differing opinions on the quality and quantity of homework given by professors in the 2-hour classes. For some students, the homework was "intense," while for others the work was not as challenging as they'd hoped. One disappointed student even gave herself more work in response to feeling that in college, "we should've done more." One aspect of classroom learning that did not disappoint any stu dent, however, was the relationship with the professor.

Professors. When asked to describe which part of the college experience surprised them most, one student wrote, "It surprised me that professors aren't boring. Before the college experience, I thought all professors are either mean or boring. I was expecting [Dr. G] to be an old, strict historian. He was really engaging and fun." Becoming familiar with professors and building a relationship with them was an extremely important part of making the strange familiar: "the proffesors [sic] were pretty good, and interesting. My professor was excellent and caring." A field notes entry may help illustrate some of the ways in which this relationship was reciprocal and show how some professors adjusted their pedagogy to meet the needs of their young students:

In the small, 2-hour classes, the professors adjust their pedagogical strategies to meet the learning needs of young adolescents and the small size of the class. In Professor M's class on energy, the students were freezing in the air conditioning. So Professor M. gave them a quick lesson on creating energy by taking them for an energetic jog up and down the stairs. Prof. M's class always seems to be somewhere interesting! Yesterday they walked around the Science Building measuring the temperature of various objects. When they got back to the classroom there were formulas to study and equations to work on. Physically tired, the all-boy class quickly went to work on the complicated problems. I was impressed, and when one student had an issue converting volts into watts, Prof. M. took such time and care explaining the problem that they were all late for lunch. And not one student complained! (Field notes, June 2008)

It was interesting to see students who usually had a hard time focusing and staying in their seats do long, complicated equations. This theme is the third major thread to emerge from the data, and it shows how students not only begin to "know" college (i.e., navigate the campus), but begin to know and embrace the idea of what it means to be a college student.

Theme Three: "Now I Know How it Is to be a College Student!"Reframing Academic Identity

As seriously as most students took the College Immersion program, they were aware that their time on campus was, as one student put it, "like actual college." Students knew they were, in a sense, "playing at college" or, as quite a few put it, getting a "taste of college." One student even wrote that they weren't doing "real" college work, just "activities." ("But," he also wrote, "in a way we did practice taking lecture notes.") Another student wrote, "The Immersion program was helpful letting us practice college before we get there." Some students embraced the chance to practice and play at being a college student and talked about how they think college students behave and how they feel. Both of these aspects of "play" helped students begin to imagine their own future as a college student. We will first examine what students said about college behaviors and then look at how they talked about the ways in which they imagined college students "feel."

College Behaviors. Students described their ideas of how one behaves in college in somewhat idealistic, abstract terms: "I learned how college is about managing your time, and being responsible for your books, homework, and other things." These statements emerged in substantive ways in the data, so students were clearly seeing or understanding something that encouraged a student to write, "College Immersion showed me how a college student would act, taught me how a college student's life is and showed me how I have to be responsible for myself." These are the skills and behaviors that students perceive to be the "ideal" college student. Actually taking on these kinds of behaviors is very different. In 5 years of surveys, we saw just two examples of students attempting to do this:
   We know how to behave in college now! I also think the homework
   gave us an understanding of what college will be like. During lunch
   I learned the most because that was the time I got to really look
   at my notes and learn from what I wrote down and to comprehend what
   I have just listened to.

   I learned how I needed to improve in art, the techniques in art,
   and how to manage my own time.

In the first quote, the student gives a specific example of how she is managing time and being responsible. In the second quote, the student does not refer to time management in the second person. She clearly states that she needs improvement in art techniques and needs to manage time better, possibly as a way to accomplish the desired improvement. In both examples, the students personalize what they see and understand as college behaviors. In this way, the students begin to reframe their academic identity in a way that feels more tangible and substantive than the other students' descriptions of responsibility and time management. The data do show that what many students articulate in their surveys is a sense of understanding that their "play" in the College Immersion program, or their "little preview of college," may help them begin to visualize themselves as college going students.

How College Students Feel. The experience of "feeling" like a college student for a week would obviously be different for each of the many students who wrote that they "felt like a college student just being on campus." And as another student wrote, "I actually felt like a college student because we acted like college students." This sense of taking on the identity of a college student through "feeling" like one is interesting, but not fully explored, unfortunately, due to the limitations of survey and observational data. Surveys do indicate that students' experiences at college were deeply positive, as we saw illustrated on the surveys by students' propensity for capital letters, the ubiquitous presence of the word of "love" to describe their experiences and their frequent use of the word "fun." One student actually suggests this when he said that the College Immersion "kind of" prepared him for college. "It wasn't that serious, but you saw the identity of a college student" and later he said, "it built you another identity of a college student." As this student realizes, building identity is a process. Understanding that they were building a foundation for future postsecondary work points to our final theme.

Theme Four: Looking Toward the Future

The final theme to be created from the pertinent data was drawn from students' discussions of the College Immersion Program in relation to ideas and thoughts about their future. Some of the students' comments refer to the Career Institute--a 4- to 6-week program they had engaged in some time during the fall or early spring. The Career Institute was a program created to help middle grades students relate personal, social and academic considerations to college and career. The series of activities were designed to be implemented during the school's Advisory program. In the seventh grade students took the Self-Directed Search Career-Explorer, an interest inventory designed to assess an individual's preferences based on Holland's typology (1997). After completing the inventory, students obtained a two-letter code indicating their level of interest in realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional types of activities. The framework afforded students a lens with which to explore interest-related careers. Some students used this lens to select their small college class for the Immersion program, and when we asked students to think about how College Immersion and the Career Institute might be related, their answers reflected a sense that both helped them imagine a future. In other answers, students talked about how the College Immersion program helped them visualize a future in college for which they were better prepared and less fearful.

College and Career Connection. Some students simply wrote that they saw "no connection" between the two programs. Career Institute had taken place months before, and some students professed that they could not remember the activities. About half of all students surveyed did remember, and when they considered the connections they spoke about the future: "both [programs] helped us realize what our futures could be like. The college program helped us see college life and the career institute helped us realize what we could be when we got older," and as another student explained, "The Career Institute and the College Immersion program inform you about the possibilities of the future."

Students who did recall the Career Institute believed that both programs together helped them realize and think about future possibilities. The College Immersion program helped students literally "see" college life as a real and possible part of their future. As one student wrote, "In the Career Institute you talk and think ... in College immersion you are physically there."

Connections Between Interests and Course Selections. Students perceived a link between college majors and future careers; this linkage helped them choose the two hour small college classes they would take during College Immersion: "The Career Institute lets you decide what to study in college. It gives you an idea of what your college course could be." The option for a personally interesting college course was offered in Immersion: "I think that by doing the college immersion it helped me decide which class to take for college because by taking the career institution I was able to pik [sic] a class I would like."

Some students seemed surprised but pleased by the perceived connection: "Well my letters in the CI [Holland's Typology] had a lot to do with my small class Computers. I love to learn new ways to learn computers." The idea of "trying on college" was salient in others' comments: "The Career Institute showed us in which options we could take. Then we put our options to the test in the College Immersion." When students examined the options for their first college classes (in College Immersion), it appeared that many students did perhaps think back to their two-letter Holland type codes and consider their interests and abilities in relation to course work. As one student pointed out, "The courses we were able to take kind of helped us to see what direction we might want to go in life and the careers we want to choose." The idea that students were actively linking their interests and abilities to college coursework holds some promise that students are thinking about their future in complex and positive ways.

"Now I Won't be Scared to Attend College." The final category under the future-focused theme speaks to the sense that students are looking toward a future for which they feel better prepared and less afraid: "It was a valuable experience because now I won't be scared to attend college, and now I know how college will be like." Another student wrote, "The immersion program is important of course because it helped me determine my future and made me think about my future college experience." This final category links back to the first theme presented. The enthusiasm generated through fun, exciting and "cool" experiences with college helped students think positively about their future as a college student. The college knowledge developed throughout the week helped them feel less fearful about college. No longer something "unknown," college was a knowable, perceivable part of a future.


Each of the themes that emerged from students' experiences in the Immersion program illustrates part of a process related to middle grades students' building a college identity in the middle grades. We know that learning involves this kind of identity construction (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and helps students develop a future-oriented focus and positive affective disposition toward college. In the literature we noted how college readiness is particularly critical for nontraditional students, as decisions students make in these grades impacts their future. We also observed that developmentally responsive academic experiences are necessary and desirable. Our findings address these issues in important ways.

As primarily nontraditional college-going students, the experiences afforded the Inquiry School participants opportunities to become familiar with college life in ways that seemed to give students an overall positive feel and sense of college. Seventh grade students featured in this study appeared to be developing scaffolds for understanding a future that included college. They engaged in active learning about college by experiencing college classes and lectures taught by professors, and by immersing themselves in campus life activities that included lunch, physical education, library, and art. Contact with college students afforded them insights into college going behaviors and skills.

Prior to engaging in Immersion, many students at the Inquiry School had vague, unformed ideas about what college would be like. In field notes, for example, one student is paraphrased as saying, "I thought it would be more strict, lecture-ish with like big classrooms and a lot of boring note-taking." Another student confided that at first it "felt weird ... but after the first class it was like I was welcomed and my feelings and opinions about college changed." These feelings and opinions constitute important findings for this study and are reflected in students' positive impressions of college. Overwhelmingly, seventh grade students wrote that they regarded college as "fun." At first this finding concerned us. After all, how realistic a view is college-as-fun? Teasing out what students found fun about college helped us understand that while students acknowledged the hard work and need for college students to be responsible, middle grades students also valued the opportunity to be treated as older than their early teen years, to be given the freedom to make choices about courses and lunch, and to feel special and privileged. Students imbued the idea of college with deeply positive feelings.

In the program, students cultivated important perceptions about college. They refined their ideas about professors and understood that these were people with whom they could form a relationship. Students attained a certain level of comfort and familiarity not only with professors but with the campus itself; in essence, students in the middle grades experienced their first day at college without the usual angst of fearful freshmen. Instead, on their first day of college they had the comfort of their peers, the presence of their teachers and the absence of grade-related stress. Within the relative comfortable confines of college life, they began reframing and expanding their academic identity and expressed confidence in their abilities to master college concepts.

Not only did students leave with a positive attitude about college, they articulated specific behaviors that they ascribed to the successful college student. While it is highly unlikely that Immersion students observed college students demonstrating the kinds of behaviors they consider important for college success, like effective time management skills and "being responsible," the fact that college behaviors emerged as a strong theme in students' responses suggests that they understand or hope to understand what it takes to achieve academic success. Perhaps deeper and more personal understandings of specific behaviors will follow in later years.

The College Immersion program addresses middle grades students' need for a responsive curriculum (National Middle School Association, 2010) and active learning; by offering students the experience of college rather than the idea of college, they actively engage in understanding what college might be like for them in the future. They begin to imagine themselves as college students and cultivate a glimpse of a future that includes higher learning. Envisioning some kind of postsecondary education addresses central issues related to college readiness and access for students who continue to be underrepresented at institutions of higher learning.


For most middle grades students, "college" is an abstract construct until students actually go and experience collegiate life for themselves. Through experiential learning (National Middle School Association, 2010), students construct knowledge of college and knowledge of what it means to be a college student. This Immersion program is an example of a middle school practice with an emphasis on college readiness that offers an engaging experience to students while highlighting the connection between academic learning and college success.

By offering college experiences in the crucial middle grades years we found that students can begin to plan for their future in ways that include college and career opportunities. This experience enables students to cultivate a forward-looking gaze that scaffolds their decision making, encourages them to plan for a future that includes college or other postsecondary institutions, and helps them create an identity of a college-going student. This type of experience is especially important for underrepresented student populations in urban settings: When students themselves make connections between their current and future academic successes, when students themselves know and understand expectations and experiences related to college work and college life, they begin to narrow the gap of unequal college access.

              Class A              Class B

Monday        (Ms. F)              (Mr. C.)
8:50-9:50     Lecture: K. 270*     Lecture: K. 270*
10:00-12:00   Small Classes        Small Classes
12:00-12:55   Lunch (Cafeteria)    Lunch (Cafeteria)
1:00-2:10     Physical Education   Art: **
2:15-3:30     Library              Physical Education
8:50-9:50     Lecture: K 270       Lecture: K 270
10:00-12:00   Small Classes        Small Classes
12:00-1:00    Lunch (Cafeteria)    Lunch (Cafeteria)
1:00-2:10     Art: 433**           Library
2:15-3:30     Physical Education   Art: 433
8:50-9:50     Lecture: K 270       Lecture: K 270
10:00-12:00   Small Classes        Small Classes
12:00-1:00    Lunch (Cafeteria)    Lunch (Cafeteria)
1:00-2:10     Library              Physical Education
2:15-3:30     Art: 433             Library

8:50-9:50     Lecture: K 270       Lecture: K 270
10:00-12:00   Small Classes        Small Classes
12:00-1:00    Lunch (Cafeteria)    Lunch (Cafeteria)
1:00-2:10     Physical Education   Art: 433
2:15-3:30     Library              Physical Education
8:50-9:50     Lecture: K 270       Lecture: K 270
10:00-12:00   Small Classes        Small Classes
12:00-1:00    Lunch (Cafeteria)    Lunch (Cafeteria)
1:00-2:10     Art: 433             Library
2:15-3:30     Physical Education   Classroom

              Class C

Monday        (Ms. S)
8:50-9:50     Lecture: K. 270*
10:00-12:00   Small Classes
12:00-12:55   Lunch (Cafeteria)
1:00-2:10     Library
2:15-3:30     Art: 433**
8:50-9:50     Lecture: K 270
10:00-12:00   Small Classes
12:00-1:00    Lunch (Cafeteria)
1:00-2:10     Physical Education
2:15-3:30     Library
8:50-9:50     Lecture: K 270
10:00-12:00   Small Classes
12:00-1:00    Lunch (Cafeteria)
1:00-2:10     Art: 433
2:15-3:30     Physical Education

8:50-9:50     Lecture: K 270
10:00-12:00   Small Classes
12:00-1:00    Lunch (Cafeteria)
1:00-2:10     Library
2:15-3:30     Art: 433
8:50-9:50     Lecture: K 270
10:00-12:00   Small Classes
12:00-1:00    Lunch (Cafeteria)
1:00-2:10     Physical Education
2:15-3:30     Library

* Morning lecture course: How Many People can the Earth Support? A
series of lectures Dr. B How fast is the population growing now,
and how does that compare to the recent and distant past? Will it
keep growing? What is the carrying capacity of the earth? Are we
there yet? Are we past it already? How would we even know what it
looked like? We will address all of these questions and more in the
short introduction to the ecology of population.

** Sketching History: A Printmaking Workshop Dr. R Students will
create drawings based on a series of prints featured in XXX
College's XXX Museum. Students will analyze works featured in the
exhibition and use them as inspiration for their own drawings and
printing plates. Students will create cardboard relief prints and
pull prints from the plate. No prior artistic experience is



1. What part of the College Immersion program did you like the most?

2. What part of the College Immersion program could have been better?

3. In which part of the College Immersion program did you learn the most?

4. Please describe what you learned (generally)

5. Please describe the connections between the Career Institute and the College Immersion program (there's no "right" answer, just your opinion)

6. What part of the college experience surprised you the most?

7. In your opinion, was this College Immersion week a valuable experience? Why or why not?

8. Please describe your overall opinion and view of the Immersion Program.

9. Do you think the College Immersion program helped prepare you for college? Why or why not?

10. Would you like to do this again? (circle one) Yes, No, Maybe


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Mary Beth Schaefer

St. John's University, Queens, NY

Lourdes M. Rivera

Queens College, City University of New York

* Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Mary Beth Schaeffer,
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Author:Schaefer, Mary Beth; Rivera, Lourdes M.
Publication:Middle Grades Research Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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