In brightly colored T-shirts from every color in the rainbow, 1,800 Porter County first graders ran from station to station on the lawn outside the Valparaiso University Center for the Arts Thursday.
They learned about American Sign Language and caught footballs thrown gently by members of the football team, played “Duck, Duck, Goose,” caught some improve and laughed on the first truly spring day of the year.
More importantly, organizers of “Walk Into My Future” said the students, from every elementary school in the county, learned what their future could bring if they choose to pursue it – continuing their education beyond high school.
“We want them to be excited about college. If they come to Valparaiso University, that’s a bonus,” said Diane Noe, a director of operations at VU.
The event was led by Promise Porter County, a collaborative effort that provides first grade students and their families a path to higher education, said Julie Giorgi, coordinator for Promise Porter County.
The program, with the help of the Porter County Community Foundation and the Valparaiso Family YMCA, helps families sign up for a CollegeChoice 529 savings account and seeds the account with $25 donated by Urschel Labs, Giorgi said, adding the program also offers a $25 Champions match for a $25 deposit of their own.
In all, 18 counties in Indiana have Promise programs, which are only offered in this state, officials said, adding the program is assisted by the Lilly Foundation and started here last year.
“Research indicates that children with a college savings account, no matter how big or how small, have better attendance, higher test scores, and are more likely to attend college,” Giorgi said. “Promise Porter County is providing hope for higher education to first grade students and their families.”
“Walk Into My Future,” which also included campus tours, lunch outside and a pep rally, marked the first time all of the county’s first graders were in the same place for the same reason, to get them excited about college, said Bill Higbie, chief executive officer of the Porter County Community Foundation.
“Valparaiso University is the perfect place to do that,” he said.
Robert Wanek, the YMCA’s CEO, said the number of children, accompanied by university students serving as volunteers, was daunting.
“These kids are responsible for their own dreams. My hope is they’ll talk to their parents and teachers and mentors about moving forward,” he said.
Students from Kyle Elementary School in Portage wore red T-shirts and theirs, like those for the other students, were emblazoned on the back with, “I’m on my way, how about you?”
They watched in fascination as Ryan Bye, assistant director of student activities, and student volunteer Ashita Bhatnaggar, a senior, taught them the basics of American Sign Language.
“It’s nice to make sure they’re making goals for their future,” said Renee Mundt, one of the Kyle first grade teachers accompanying the students.
In class, she and her students talk about what they want to be when they grow up and what they have to do to get there.
“I don’t necessarily talk about college but we talk about goals, to be sure. You have to work hard,” she said, adding college is offered as an option. “Some students want to be a veterinarian, some want to be a teacher, and some want to be a professional football player.”
Bhatnaggar, 21, who’s from India, said the students were cute and well behaved.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for them to know what college is,” she said, adding the college fund was a motivator and when she was their age, she didn’t even know what college was.
They have the chance now to save toward that goal.
“They know they’re saving for something bigger,” she said.
Amy Lavalley is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.