College Culture and Deep Dish Pizza: An Interview with Fairley High School Principal

college culture

Fairley High School students tour Millikin University

“Ask lots of good questions.” That was the enthusiastic directive Fairley High School (FHS) Principal, Zach Samson, gave his students as they prepared to explore college options in the Chicago area over a recent weekend in March. Samson along with FHS College Counselor, Lane Fletcher, and Drama Teacher, Cafabian Heard, traveled with 22 students- a mix of sophomores, juniors and seniors- from Memphis, TN to the Windy City to tour university campuses. And they certainly wouldn’t have left without doing some sightseeing and deep dish pizza eating.

Samson spoke with us about how opportunities like this help Green Dot Public Schools create and nurture a college-going culture that sets students up for success.

college culture
college culture

FHS students having a blast at Navy Pier and chowing down at Lou Malnati’s.

Why did you choose Chicago as the destination?

Chicago is not close, but it is accessible. There are tons of great schools, both inside and just outside of the city, as well as a variety of relatively inexpensive transit options that connect Memphis and Chicago. So, it’s a realistic choice for students who want to experience life in a new city but still have a solid tie to their support network here at home.

What schools did you visit while there?

We toured four colleges in two days: Northwestern University, University of Illinois at Chicago, Millikin University and Dominican University. The kids really enjoyed getting to see how different each campus was from the next and loved the city in general. We also made time for some fun sightseeing, like Navy Pier, Millennium Park and Michigan Avenue.

Their only complaint was the cold weather. Coming from the south, it’s quite the contrast!

One of my favorite moments during our trip happened at Millikin. After giving us a thorough tour of the campus, our guide stopped and asked the students if they had any questions, and every hand in the group went up. I was so proud to see how excited and engaged they all were. They had so many thoughtful questions rapid-firing at our guide, I was a little worried we were going to overwhelm her (in the best way possible, of course).

College Culture
College Culture

Inside the halls of Dominican University (left) and getting a feel for the classrooms at Northwestern University (right).

Another favorite happened when we went to Northwestern University. Northwestern is my alma mater, so I actually had the opportunity to lead the campus tour. It was incredibly inspiring to guide my current students through classrooms where I received my own college education. I loved getting to share this experience with them and connect on another level.

Why is it important for students to visit college campuses?

We tell them college is great and that it’s worth the effort and hard work, but there is something about being in that space themselves, directly interacting with the faculty and students, that brings the college experience to life. Sometimes students will visit a single campus, feel like it’s not a good fit, and then assume that college itself isn’t a good fit for them.

So, we try to drive home the message that not finding a home at the first school you visit doesn’t mean college isn’t for you. It just means that particular school isn’t for you. So, keep seeing what’s out there. It’s crucial for students to explore a variety of schools so they can begin thinking critically about where they see themselves thriving and what it takes to make that happen.

What was the primary goal of your trip, and how do you measure the success of that goal?

Our main objective was helping students understand that choosing a college is a process of evaluation, not a snap decision. Students who begin thinking in those terms also begin identifying the personal academic standards they must achieve to turn their aspirations into realities. It’s a way of thinking that carries over into other aspects of their lives and continues to impact them in positive ways.

We’re already seeing the effects this trip had on our students, largely based on the way they talk about things like testing and studying. Instead of just signing up to take the ACT and crossing their fingers, they’re identifying the specific scores needed to get into the colleges they want to attend and working toward a concrete goal. They’re still talking about what they liked and didn’t like at the schools we visited, which has led them to researching other schools and asking new questions. They’re sharing stories from their experiences with fellow classmates and getting them excited about the next round of college tours.

I think success means creating well-informed young adults who are empowered to make thoughtful decisions about their futures. They understand the importance of taking personal responsibility in all situations, from how they conduct themselves as students to how they conduct themselves as citizens.

“Success in college, leadership and life” is more than a motto at Green Dot. It is a guiding principle in everything we do, both in and out of the classroom. By encouraging a culture of critical thinking, goal-setting and personal accountability, we give students a framework that will serve them well throughout their lives as they forge their individual paths to success.

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