Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Even though high school graduation is more than three months away, a select group of Western North Carolina students is particularly eager. In some ways, these students feel as if they have been preparing specifically for graduation – and their futures – since seventh grade, when they were inducted into the New Century Scholars (NCS) program, founded in 1995.
“I was in the seventh grade when I found out,” said Franklin High School (FHS) senior Katie Collins, whose experience is similar to the other five FHS seniors fortunate enough to be selected for the joint Southwestern Community College (SCC)/Macon County School System program that provides college preparation skills and last-dollar college tuition support. Collins is one of about 100 students from schools in Macon, Swain, and Jackson counties to be named a Scholar. “This meant I had an opportunity to give myself an even better life.”
According to director, Pam Collins (no relation to Katie Collins), NCS targets “high potential” students and provides resources to help those students with future planning throughout middle school, high school, and enrollment at SCC. In the sixth grade, potential NCS students are identified by school staff, and a committee of teachers and administrators review school records, leadership and character qualities and more to determine which names to nominate for NCS.
Students in the NCS program who graduate from high school in good standing have the opportunity to achieve an associate’s degree without concern for the cost of tuition and fees at SCC; and, if a student chooses, he or she can transfer to Western Carolina University (WCU), after obtaining the associate’s degree, to pursue a scholarship-funded (for tuition only) bachelor’s degree. Collins explained that Scholars have the freedom to attend other colleges, but the NCS program does not cover tuition at other institutions. However, Scholars who attend other colleges can take tuition-paid courses at SCC during summer breaks.
NCS students must maintain their grades, remain drug and alcohol free, and contribute a minimum of 10 hours of volunteer service to their community each year.
No problem, agreed Jade Ensley and Jessica McGaha. “We first started volunteering because it was required, but then we started to realize how important involvement in the community is,” said Ensley. “You see how it impacts the people around you as a whole, and it opens up your perspective of all kinds of people. It’s gratifying. And I feel like the things we’ve done in the community have helped shape our characters.”
Even though 10 hours is the annual volunteerism requirement, Collins said current NCS seniors have each completed around 100 hours or more since seventh grade.
Ensley’s favorite volunteer opportunity as an NCS representative is Relay for Life, a fundraising opportunity hosted by the American Cancer Society. McGaha said it is rewarding when individuals who have lost loved ones to cancer express appreciation for the students’ willingness to help with the event.
“The whole program is fantastic,” said Tristan Carter, who plans to attend SCC and then WCU with the hope of eventually becoming an engineer. His sister, Leah Carter, a sophomore at FHS who attends Early College at SCC, was also inducted into the NCS program in her seventh grade year.
McGaha wants to train to become a sonographer. “Being a Scholar has given me such peace of mind,” she said, “and involvement in the program helped me decide what I want to do. My options would have been more limited if I was not in NCS because my parents wouldn’t be able to afford college.”
Ensley’s goal is to first become a vet, work in a veterinary hospital, and then eventually open a nonprofit hospital that caters to low income pet owners. She is also interested in a nonprofit that cares for the pet needs of the homeless. “When I was inducted into [NCS], I felt so motivated. No one in my family had ever been to college. Now I have a chance.”
Ensley added, “In our library [at FHS], there is a sign that reads: ‘If your dreams are not big enough to scare you, they’re not big enough.’”
“These students have big dreams,” said Collins, “but I think the program has given them the confidence and the desire to know what they want and how to get there.”
A main objective of NCS, according to the program’s Student Handbook, is to prepare “the next generation of workers, business owners, managers, teachers, parents, community leaders, and public officials …”
Other NCS seniors at FHS who will either graduate in May or who graduated early in December are Jasper Coggins and Dara Henry.
NCS seniors will receive special recognition during a pre-graduation award/scholarship event this spring.
Students in the program agreed they will miss their leader. “She just brightens our day,” said Ensley, about Pam Collins. “She makes us smile, always,” added McGaha.
The students pointed out that Collins is adept at team building. Students in the NCS program have built relationships not only at their own schools but also among fellow Scholars attending other schools within the three participating counties of Macon, Swain, and Jackson.
Collins has been overseeing NCS since 2007 when she was hired as the community schools coordinator for Macon County Schools. Her career has always been in the school system. She explained that funding for the program directly supports students. The number of new students inducted into NCS depends on donated funds available annually. “SCC looks at the budget each year and lets me know how many sixth graders can be selected to begin the program in their seventh grade year.”
A large donor to NCS is Cowee Quilters, a group of women who make quilts and then auction them off. “Without donations by groups and individuals, NCS would not survive,” said Collins. “The more funds we have, the more scholars we can induct into the program.”
Even though Collins monitors Scholars from their seventh grade year through 12th grade, she said she rarely meets a student that needs discipline or motivation. Just being a New Century Scholar “encourages them to excel,” she said.
“‘Don’t you mess this up!’ That’s what my parents have been telling me all these years,” said McGaha. “They wish they had had this opportunity when they were in school. I know it’s a blessing and I’m thankful.”
“The program has been very beneficial to me because it pushed me to want to learn more and keep my grades up in school,” said Katie Collins.
An added bonus for the students, said Pam Collins, is that the NCS affiliation follows the selected students not only through their school-age years, but onto college and graduate-school scholarship applications as well as employment resumes.
Anyone in the community interested in supporting NCS can contact Collins at 828-371-0741 or email her at email@example.com.