published Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

College trip gives teens experience outside Chattanooga

About 70 Hamilton County middle and high school students took a day trip to Tuskegee University during spring break to learn about college opportunities.
About 70 Hamilton County middle and high school students took a day trip to Tuskegee University during spring break to learn about college opportunities.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

TUSKEGEE, Ala. -- Mekal Smith's speech wasn't a classic. It didn't change people's lives, didn't even last beyond half a minute.

"This is a ... a really good school," he told about 40 teenagers on a sidewalk at Tuskegee University. "There are some, uhh ... really good students here."

Finished, Smith shrugged, slapped hands with a student and walked away. He wasn't prepared for the group, which recently visited the school as part of a spring break program called Project Success.

A minute earlier, Smith had been sitting on a bench next to an elderly woman wearing a maroon T-shirt with yellow letters. That seat isn't for you young folk, 79-year-old Everlena Holmes told Smith, joking. A pack of high school kids walked by -- each also in maroon and yellow -- and Smith asked if any of them were from Chattanooga.

Yes, Holmes said. All of them are.

Smith told her that he, too, was from Chattanooga; he graduated from Howard School last spring. And before he knew it, Smith was on his feet, Holmes' arm around his, walking toward the group.

About 70 Chattanooga students, mostly from the inner city, visited Tuskegee University over spring break.

After his off-the-cuff comments, Smith thought about the other things he could have said. He could have told the students that he had been following the violence back home. Smith also could have said that life can be simpler, that while his classes may be more difficult now, his grades are better because he can focus in this rural city, population 9,000.

He liked his Howard teachers, he said, and he wants to come back to Chattanooga. But for now, he's glad to be away.

"It's a big relief," said Smith, who studies forensic psychology and runs the 200 and 400 meters for the track team. "Coming here, it's like, 'This is what I'm missing out on.'"

Holmes agrees.

"This is a cure for all those shootings," Holmes said of the day trip. "You need to get out of Chattanooga and show them how the rest of the world lives."

Herbert McCray started Project Success in 2006. A career educator, he hoped to prepare children for life after high school. Funding comes from community donations, he said.

Before traveling to Tuskegee, students met at Second Missionary Baptist Church for tips on how to fill out job applications. A photographer showed them how to work with film. On another day, they participated in a health fair. But the college trips are always the highlight of the week. In years past, students have visited East Tennessee State, Middle Tennessee State and Fisk University.

This year, about 70 middle and high school students signed up for the program. High schoolers got the full tour of Tuskegee while middle schoolers "just got their first taste," said Project Success program coordinator Deborah Maddox, wearing the Tuskegee basketball jacket her mother earned in the 1940s.

Maddox hopes the program will motivate Chattanooga children to go to college. On the tour, however, the students fell into the two camps so recognizable at any high school: Those who listened quietly, and those who joked and jumped and sang, grasping for the attention of the opposite sex.

When the tour guide pointed out the portraits of the wives of the university presidents, she revealed that Washington married three women.

"Dayum. Playaaa, playaaa," one student chirped over a chorus of cackles before the guide could explain that Washington's first two wives passed away before him.

"She died falling off a horse," the guide said of one of the women.

Hours later, on the way home, the two charter buses carrying the students stopped at a McDonald's in Auburn, Ala. At one booth, Jawuan Simmons and Patrick Hunter talked about their favorite rappers, headphones hooked around their necks. Simmons, a freshman at East Ridge, wants to play college football or basketball or both. He wanted to go to Oregon, but now he's thinking North Carolina so he can be like Michael Jordan.

Across the restaurant, 36-year-old Lachanda Davis sat with her son, her daughter, her nephew and two other children. Her ninth-grade daughter goes to Ivy Academy. Her son is in sixth grade and attends Chattanooga Christian.

She said her children are too busy with homework and track practice to notice much of what goes on outside school. Davis, a health initiatives representative at the American Cancer Society, expects her children to finish college, something she failed to do. She went to Chattanooga State for about a semester, but she had her first child at 22.

She never went back.

"But," she said, "don't make this some sob story."

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