WILLSBORO - A school in a small rural town in upstate New York, where 98 percent of the students are Caucasian, may have little to offer in terms of concrete lessons in diversity, but partner that school with one in New York City's Harlem community, where 99 percent of the students are African American and Hispanic, and diversity becomes more than an abstract concept.
So it was with Willsboro Central and Wadleigh Secondary, two College For Every Student (CFES) schools sharing a commitment to putting more underserved youth on the path to college, yet each serving a very different demographic.
The idea for a cross-cultural exchange began with the students themselves. A dozen juniors and seniors from Willsboro and Wadleigh were among 50 CFES Scholars who participated in a CFES-sponsored college exploration program at Skidmore College last July. The bond that developed between these young people over the three days underscored their many commonalities, overshadowing differences in race and culture. The students left Skidmore determined to reunite through CFES, an organization that helps underserved students nationwide get to college and be successful there.
That opportunity came in November, when the first leg of the exchange brought 12 Wadleigh CFES Scholars to the North Country to explore regional colleges and spend time with their Willsboro friends. After two days of touring colleges in Vermont and New York's Adirondack region, the Wadleigh students were introduced to Willsboro Central School and rural life. At Willsboro, the two student groups participated in a powerful diversity workshop, met with admissions directors from Champlain and Middlebury Colleges, and joined in a service activity by reading to elementary school children. And there was even time to visit a farm where the hosts weren't surprised to learn that none of their guests had ever milked a cow - until they came to Willsboro!
"The whole experience was eye-opening for our kids. They learned about a very different world. They loved Willsboro," said Delores Roberts, an educator from Harlem who chaperoned the Wadleigh students.
"It changed my view of so many things. It opened up a new world," said Ian from Wadleigh.
Promising an equally unforgettable experience, the Wadleigh students invited their Adirondack peers to the Big Apple in the spring. In April, nine Willsboro CFES Scholars and their two teacher-chaperones boarded the train for Penn Station and three days and two nights in New York City. From their hotel in the heart of Times Square, they could easily walk to most destinations, sightseeing along the way.
Up at five the first morning, the Willsboro students made it to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in time to be seen on the Today Show proudly displaying their CFES banner.
After breakfast they met up with their Wadleigh hosts and took their first-ever subway ride to the Manhattan borough of Harlem and the historic five-story school building that is home to Wadleigh's 600 students, grades 6-12. The Willsboro group was welcomed into the classrooms and later entertained by talented members of the school's performing arts group.
The friends had more time to reconnect during lunch and the walk through Harlem to another CFES school, P.S. 197. There they participated in an after-school service program, sharing their knowledge of college admissions and financial aid with fifth and sixth graders. The elementary students peppered the Willsboro visitors with questions about their school and various aspects of rural life, facts that the younger students found both fascinating and mystifying.
Dinner that night at MoBay, a restaurant in the heart of Harlem, gave the Willsboro Scholars a taste of southern food, jazz, and what the restaurant calls its "world famous barbecue."
Tuesday morning the group set off on a 20-block hike up Park Avenue to long-time CFES partner Hunter College. With 21,000 students, Hunter is the largest college in the City University of New York (CUNY) system and also one of the oldest public colleges in the country. The Willsboro students toured the campus and met with Kenney Robinson from the School of Education, who provided what one student described as "the most useful presentation I ever attended" on college success.
After lunch at a typical New York deli, the group grabbed their luggage and headed back to Penn Station and the train north. Although the visitors longed for more time with their friends from Wadleigh, they were grateful for the opportunity to explore the city and urban life and, most of all, to learn firsthand about diversity.
"It was amazing," Erika said, "just being able to see so many (different) cultures in one place."
Tara noted that the exchange "has made me aware of many new things," while Joshua called it "an experience that will stay with me for a lifetime."
Their time in the city also enabled them, as one student put it, "to see how it feels being one of the minority for a change."
For these young people from the small town of Willsboro, that was perhaps the most important lesson of all.