Delbert Hutchison, associate professor of biology, leads a WISE class.

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Photography by Matt Banderas ’04

They gathered around small tables in the basement of Reid Campus Center, catching up over pizza and lemonade before breaking for the rock climbing wall. These teenagers aren't old enough to be Whitman students, but they're no strangers to the campus: they had returned for a reunion with fellow participants of the WISE program.

Now in its 10th year, WISE—Whitman Institute for Scholastic Enrichment—is a three-day, all-expenses paid summer sleepover camp designed for local middle and high school students who may be the first in their families to apply to college. It features all the staples of a full-on college immersion program: nights in the residence halls, meals in the dining halls, soccer on Ankeny Field and classes with Whitman professors, plus a financial aid workshop for parents.

"I think Whitman is a very valuable resource in the community, and this is one of the ways that we reach out to expand educational opportunities for local students," said Sonja Aikens, WISE program coordinator and administrative assistant in the Intercultural Center. "I really appreciate the chance to meet the students and help them start to plan for the future."

The parent workshop in particular is an important stepping stone in making college seem more accessible not just for students, but their families, too. Led by Whitman financial aid and admission staff, it offers suggestions on affordability and how to assist students with their college search. WISE continues to support its participants throughout high school, bringing students back to campus for get-togethers and serving as a resource during their financial aid and college application process.

"We work with a lot of low-income minority students, so it was really cool to be able to interact with them in person," said WISE intern Ye Rim Cho '19. "Most of the students seemed pretty excited."

Studies show that pre-college counseling has a proportionally higher impact on students who are low-income or first generation, which is precisely why those groups are prioritized in the WISE selection process. The goal is that by giving these students a taste of college life early on, it will encourage them to make the most of their high school career with an eye toward college and scholarship applications.

"The most rewarding part for me is the connection to the students," Aikens said. "It makes my day when I hear about their successes."

Last year, 25 seventh and eighth graders from Walla Walla, Milton-Freewater, College Place, Dayton and Dixie participated in the WISE program. In addition to Whitman staff and faculty, they were able to meet current Whitman students, who acted as resident assistants and role models, answering questions about their own paths to college. The schedule included classes like creative writing and biology, as well as art and yoga.

"In middle school, everyone tells you to go to college, but it kind of looks like this far away thing that's really hard to get to," said Lauren, now a junior in high school who attended the WISE program when she was in eighth grade. "But when you get there, it's not as scary."