Dilcia Zelaya Navarro, a rising sophomore at Park View High School, has tried hard to master English since she arrived in the United States from Honduras two years ago. As the daughter of a single mother, and with two younger brothers, she said it won't be easy to go to college -- but she's determined to pursue that goal.
"Now that I've had the opportunity to come to this country, I want to study," said Zelaya, 15, who said she hopes to get a college degree in literature or computer science. "Most of my friends say, 'I want to go to that university,' but they don't know what to do."
She has been visiting college campuses and learning academic skills as part of a program that reaches out to minority and first-generation college-bound students. CAMPUS, or College Achievement -- A Minority Program for Unique Students, is designed to prepare students for their four years of high school and inspire them to think seriously about the four years after that.
"This program is about opening additional doors and allowing [the students] to seek out there the things that are available for higher education," said Charles E. Hale, a Loudoun guidance specialist who helps coordinate CAMPUS.
The program began two years ago with students in various grades. Of the first 15 students in its graduating class, 14 are headed to college and one is on a religious mission. This fall several will attend such highly regarded schools as Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the College of William and Mary.
But Hale said the ultimate proof of the program's success won't be evident for another several years, when the students receive their degrees. "It's one thing to get into a university," he said. "It's another thing to actually graduate."
The program now involves almost 200 high school students in Loudoun County. The process for getting into CAMPUS -- letters of recommendation from teachers and an interview -- is not unlike the college application process through which CAMPUS will later help guide the students. Before they are even accepted, they quickly become acquainted with the program's theme: challenging students to reach beyond their comfort zones.
Last week, 90 students who have just joined the program, mostly incoming freshmen, got together for the first time. On Wednesday they attended a day-long series of seminars at Heritage High School, and on Thursday they toured the University of Virginia. The group activities provided the students an opportunity to share their anticipation and anxieties about high school, while the trip encouraged them to start thinking about not only what they were looking for in a school, but what a university would expect of them.
When they arrived at the Heritage High cafeteria early Wednesday, the students seated themselves mostly in groups of friends and acquaintances. In short order, they were divided randomly into groups and introduced to new people. Each student completed a questionnaire -- finishing sentences such as, "I think you would like me because I am. . . ." -- and then shared the answers with the others.
"Each of the activities you'll be doing will help us create a more unified class," Hale said. "In order for you to grow, you're going to be put into some uncomfortable situations."
As CAMPUS leaders pointed out, many challenges pay off with tangible rewards, such as overcoming a fear of public speaking and enrolling in honors classes that will impress choice colleges.
"You don't want to just get by and take the easy courses," said Trish Garrett, a guidance counselor at Stone Bridge High School, who urged the students to focus on time management and take diligent notes.
That advice will come in handy this fall for Soban Ansari, 14, who will take two honors classes -- history and science -- as a freshman at Loudoun County High. So far, he said, CAMPUS has taught him that a key part of achievement is simply doing the work. "Just keep up," he said. "You've got to stay on your own schedule."