Compass to Campus

A few feet shorter than the usual crowd bustling around campus to get to class in the morning, and plenty energetic without a morning coffee, hundreds of fifth grade students took to Western Washington University’s campus in October. This fall marked the third year the Compass 2 Campus program introduced fifth graders from 10 schools in Whatcom and Skagit counties to university life through an all-day tour. The fifth graders get to see classroom settings, university housing, activity centers, the library, and the array of art resources on campus. Lunch takes place in the Viking Union building, and the youngsters also get to meet the university president.

Cyndie Shepard, founder of Compass 2 Campus, calls the day-long field-trip tour the “kickoff” for the program, which follows the students from fifth grade to high school graduation. She identifies the eight-year duration as “the strength of the program,” offering academic support, mentoring and encouragement along the way. The program is intended to provide support and tools to help students successfully complete high school and to encourage them to pursue higher education in their futures, whether at a university, college, community college, technical college or trade school.

As the third year of the program, kids in fifth, sixth and seventh grades will be connected with university mentors this year. The program works with 10 school districts in Whatcom and Skagit counties, reaching 93 classrooms in 20 schools this year. The Compass 2 Campus program is the second of its kind in the nation, modeled after the University of Wisconsin’s Phuture Phoenix program, also created by Cyndie Shepard. Cyndie, wife of Western’s current president Bruce Shepard, developed the Phuture Phoenix program while Bruce served as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay.

Phoenix Rising

During a tour of one of the local inner-city elementary schools of Green Bay in 2002, Cyndie encountered an angry 10-year-old boy who was in trouble and sitting in the principal’s office. During a conversation with the boy Cyndie learned that his father was in prison and the boy believed he would wind up like his dad one day. She says the experience was heart breaking, and it inspired her to try to provide children in need with inspiration and opportunity.

She asked the principal of the school, “What can I do to help with kids like that?” She says the principal didn’t skip a beat before responding that they simply need role models, and college students would be the perfect match. The Phuture Phoenix program launched a year later in 2003 with the initiative to expose young children in low-income schools to future options and lifestyles they might not otherwise be aware of or consider.

Since then, Cyndie launched Compass 2 Campus in Washington in 2009 and has developed two additional programs in Wisconsin. She makes regular visits back to Wisconsin to foster her original creation. Phuture Pheonix has seen the high school graduation pass of the first two sets of fifth graders engaged in the program. With higher high school graduation rates in those recent years, Cyndie says the program has been a success.

Fifth grade was chosen as the starting point for these higher education programs based on research showing that children around 10-years-old are starting to think about the future. The problem with existing university exposure programs, Cyndie says, is that they don’t introduce the idea of college until middle school or beyond, when study habits have already developed and students are typically either struggling or succeeding in school. “When we come in at a fifth grade level, we can change their minds,” Cyndie says. Low-income schools and presumably future first-generation college students are the main target of the programs. Cyndie says her philosophy with the program is that those children can succeed in school if they have the opportunity to learn valuable skill sets, see a bigger perspective of life and have a chance to explore things they might not otherwise. The primary goal of the mentors is to help provide these experiences.

Some university students have stayed with the program their entire time at Western, starting on their third year this fall. Mentors enroll in a three-credit training course and select a lab time to spend four hours working with the students each week. During those four hours students help the teachers and children in a variety of ways, from teaching curriculum, engaging the kids in after school activities, tutoring and more.

“I believe education is the great equalizer,” Cyndie says. Through education, everyone can understand important concepts, develop lifelong curiosity and gain access to better employment options, which is especially important in getting children out of poverty in their futures. “Everyone should have the opportunity to go to college if they want to,” she says.