One Week. 15 colleges. 20 eager teens.

Six years ago, I embarked on my higher education journey as a first-generation college student. As part of my research, every other weekend I would drag my parents across North Carolina to tour college campuses. A few weeks ago, I relived those very moments with a group of 20 high school students from Wilmington, Delaware preparing for their own college journey.

On Easter Sunday, the group of college hopefuls began their first leg of a week-long college tour. We toured 15 schools in South and North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. This tour would be the first time that many of these students journeyed out of the First State.

Source: Navient

The college tour is part of the Black Achievers program, a YMCA college readiness and career awareness initiative. In addition to touring out-of-state schools, students also visit state colleges. This allows them to have a range of options when evaluating college costs. As a mentor with the program, I meet with local youth once a week to help prepare them for future success and to help them understand the importance of completing their degree. Research from Navient’s Money Under 35 study found that graduates were more likely to be financially secure, earn higher pay, own a home, and be optimistic about future career prospects than those who started college but did not complete it.

I joined the tour as a chaperone, thanks to Navient Neighbors, a program at Navient that allows employees to take time away from work to volunteer in their community. On the first day of the trip, we traveled to University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where students guided themselves on a short tour of the university. There, they got a feel of what they could expect to see on other campuses. Over the next few days, we would rise early to tour some of the oldest Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States including Hampton University in Virginia (founded in 1868), Claflin University and Benedict College in South Carolina (both founded in 1869) and Livingston College in North Carolina (founded in 1879).

Source: Navient
Each school had its own story that resonated with me.

While touring schools in North Carolina, we visited the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. The museum is home to Woolworth, a site where, in 1960, four African American college freshmen attending North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University held a non-violent protest in the form of a sit-in. Their actions inspired young men and women to stage peaceful sit-ins at segregated diners across the South. Throughout the tour of the museum, students were able to see how the action of a few students started a movement that helped shape the U.S. into what we see today. After visiting the museum, we toured the university that the four men attended.

The students went on the college tour to research potential colleges.

“I decided to come on the trip because I wanted to have an idea of where I want to go to after I graduate high school.” — Jada
“I feel very confident in doing my research for college. This was a great opportunity and I am so glad that I had the chance to experience what these colleges are like.” — Faith

While on tour, I witnessed students become savvier in their decision to further their education. They asked tour guides important questions about college costs, scholarships, graduation rate and campus life to help them evaluate each school. In addition to myself, two other Navient team members, Barbara Watkins and Camille Fletcher, attended the college tour. The combination of our college experiences offered additional insights to students.

At each school, we were greeted by energetic and passionate tour guides who shared their higher education story. When asked “why did they attend this school?” they often replied with “you really feel at home here.” That response stuck with many of the teens who shared with me that each college made them feel like they were surrounded by family.

Source: Navient

Similar to my own education journey, many of the teens will be first generation college students. In fact, 30 percent of young adults, ages 22–35, say that they were first in their family to attend college, according to our study. So, I understand the emotions of feeling overwhelmed with college costs and options.

Despite long days walking in the southern heat and even longer nights making sure each young person was safe, I would do it all again. It was amazing to witness each student become more confident in knowing that they could obtain their degrees and make a difference. I am excited to have been part of the college tour and these students’ college-making decisions.

Brianna Huff is the communications specialist for Navient. She enjoys volunteering in the community and is currently a mentor with YMCA’s Black Achievers program. The program assists students with preparing for college and introduces them to different career paths including healthcare, science, communications, arts, business, law and technology.