An event organized by a United Methodist Church in Taylors, S.C., shows the positive influence churches can have in encouraging young people to continue their education. More than 150 youth and family members attended the Life After School Summit at St. Mark UMC in Taylors, S.C., on May 17, 2014, for presentations and exhibits by representatives from colleges and universities, the armed forces and other organizations.
For the past decade, St. Mark has sponsored an annual education program about scholarships and college testing requirements typically attended by 7-12 students and their family members from the congregation. This year, however, the program was opened to anyone in the community, and about 125 students and 45-50 parents participated, including several busloads of participants from other churches. “One of the most powerful things we had was nine of our [church’s] college students, ranging from freshmen to first year out of college, who were on a student-only panel,” said church member Derek McGowan, a corporate campus relations manager and former U.S. Air Force recruiter who chaired the church’s program committee. “They opened up and talked about anything those students needed to know about going to college. That received the highest marks.”
Representatives from seven colleges and universities, the military and other organizations were present for workshops, counseling sessions and other presentations. More than $280,000 in scholarships were offered to students attending the event. Melanie Overton, assistant general secretary for Schools, Colleges and Universities at the General Board of Higher Education & Ministry, said the St. Mark event is a great example of how churches can help high school students. “The church has a role to play in mentoring students,” Overton said. “Some students need the help of a community to explore their options and prepare themselves to make the best possible decision about their future.” Churches are a part of young people’s lives long before they begin thinking about college, Overton said. “Churches are there when kids are in middle school and high school, and they are the ones who can help nurture their aspirations and help them think about financial planning and those kinds of things,” Overton said.
Six workshops ran simultaneously in church classrooms on topics such as job enrichment opportunities, military careers and parenting first-year college students. A representative of the Workforce Development Agency in nearby Greenville talked about summer jobs for students. A panel of parents discussed how to help students get through their first semester. Other speakers talked about how to fill out job applications and how to be successful in interviews. One standing-room-only session featured college coaches and players who spoke about NCAA rules and requirements. “A lot of students were thinking how easy it is to be on scholarship and go to college, so some of the high school coaches sent their football teams to the meeting,” McGowan said.
“We didn’t want to exclude anyone in our congregation by focusing on academia only. That’s why we called it the Life After School Summit,” McGowan said. “Traditionally, churches have a college program or something that’s college-focused, [and] there is nothing there for people who want to go to technical colleges, two-year schools, trade schools or the military. So adding that component made it a much more successful program because those rooms were filled, as well.”
Retired teachers and educators in St. Mark’s congregation served as part of the support team for the summit, and 7th and 8th grade students wore “Ask Me” t-shirts and helped participants find their sessions. The church’s hospitality committee provided free lunch to everyone attending.
One college participating was Spartanburg Methodist College, a two-year liberal arts institution in nearby Spartanburg, S.C., where more than half of its 800 students are the first in their families to attend college.
“A two-year school [like Spartanburg Methodist] is really a great place for people to start, especially if they are first-generation students, because of the one-on-one attention that our students receive,” said Dr. Colleen Perry Keith, president of the 103-year-old United Methodist-related college. She said because the college focuses on the first two years, faculty and staff really understand the challenges these first-generation college students face. “And we work to try to make those challenges manageable for them,” she added. Nationally, about 20 percent of students who start two-year colleges complete their four-year degree elsewhere, but that percentage at Spartanburg Methodist is more than four times greater, Keith said. “Our mean graduation rate for the last nine years is 41.3 percent for those who actually go for the full two years and meet all of the degree requirements to graduate,” she said. But Keith said 82 percent of Spartanburg’s students either graduate or go on to pursue their education somewhere else.
Following on the summit’s success, McGowan said St. Mark is planning another educational event later this year.