Sophomore student Evelyn Xu, left, talks with students from Oxon Hill Middle School as she leads them on a tour of Maryland University. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

All Ashley Proctor knew about college was what she had seen on television.

“You see people sitting on the grass reading, and I thought that was just TV, but that’s really what people do,” Ashley, 13, a Prince George’s County eighth-grader, said as she sat in the middle of the Mall at the University of Maryland at College Park on Monday.

She had never set foot on a college campus, and aside from her teachers, she doesn’t know anyone who has received a college degree.

Ashley was one of 520 Oxon Hill Middle School students who fanned out across five Maryland college campuses to tour buildings and talk to students Monday, part of a program school administrators hope encourages students to consider going to college.

One of the nation’s lowest-performing schools — also known as a turnaround school, which receives special federal, state and local funding to improve academic achievement — Oxon Hill shut its doors for the day Monday to give students a sense of what it takes to make it to college, and what college life might be like.

“This needs to be an opportunity for every child,” said Wendell Coleman, Oxon Hill’s principal, before he boarded one of 11 chartered buses headed to U-Md. at Baltimore County. Students also visited Bowie State, Morgan State and Johns Hopkins universities.

School board member Edward Burroughs (District 8), a U-Md. student, said he was thrilled that the middle school students were getting to observe college life.

“The time for students to be college-ready is not in their junior or senior year, it’s as early as possible, so I’m happy to see the Oxon Hill staff recognizing that and doing this,” said Burroughs, who represents the Oxon Hill area.

As 130 students began their trek across the College Park campus, a few were overwhelmed by its size.

“My feet hurt,” one boy said.

“I should’ve worn different shoes,” said another.

“Well, the size of the campus is something that you should think about when choosing a school,” their teacher said.

Meanwhile, Xavier Evans Armstrong, 13, an eighth-grader, videotaped his tour guide as she spoke about majors, electives and dining-hall programs.

They asked the senior about her major: psychology. What was her grade point average in high school? It was 3.7.

Eighth-grader Javion Hill, 13, said he’d like to go to Bowie State, but after touring the U-Md. campus he said he thinks “it would be nice to go here, too.”

Hill said he learned Monday that he has to have a “great GPA” if he wants to go to college. Right now, he said, his is “pretty good. I have to step it up.”

Ashanti Foster, the middle school’s academic dean, said she hoped the experience, which cost the school about $6,000 for transportation and meals, would open the students’ eyes to opportunities available to them.

“I want them to say, ‘Just like I’m here today, I can come back and do the same thing as a college student,’ ” Foster said.

The students spent their travel time on the buses talking to their teachers about the teachers’ own college years. Foster said she wanted the experience to help students relate to their teachers on a more personal level and to learn more about their teachers’ college experiences.

Alicia Greene, a social studies teacher who helps out in the guidance department at Oxon Hill, said that even though most of the students had never visited a college campus, they understand the need for a college degree and the associated costs.

“But they don’t know about the preparation” needed for college, Greene said. “Then they get to their junior and senior year and they are unprepared.. . . We want them to know that college is accessible to them. They need to know that this is something that they can do. Even if they choose not to, they have been exposed to it.”

Ashley, who wants to be an interior designer, said the main thing she took away from Monday’s tour is a lesson about the importance of high school.

“I learned that it’s really good to keep your grades up and that high school matters,” Ashley said. “I knew it was important, but I didn’t know it mattered that much.”