By Robert McClory
Ketchikan, Alaska is not the easiest place to set up College Fairs. An island school district — air and water are the only ways in or out. Anything aside from virtual visits will take time, money and intention. Since it’s easier to get a few college representatives in than trying to get our students out, that’s the venue we choose to pursue.
Alaska is the largest state in the country, but our population is consolidated in a few population centers. As such, districts like ours that are considered a major population center have the advantage of being able to do two things: attract more college representatives and attract smaller outlying school districts that cannot achieve the former.
We start contacting colleges, career technical centers, military and major employers in the spring. We also coordinate with the other large districts to develop a sequence that reflects the Alaska Airlines flight schedule. After sequencing a weeklong trip to which the six major districts can agree, we run our dates and the dates of the others by those representatives who normally like to attend.
The Tuesday before our Wednesday College Fair, we have a special event we call EXPLORE Night, an acronym for Exploring Postsecondary Level Opportunities and Resources in Education and Employment. Because many of the representatives must arrive by Tuesday for our Tuesday morning and early afternoon College Fair, many are here anyway. The EXPLORE Night is a different format. Instead of passively waiting for others to approach them and have a one-on-one meeting, representatives conduct workshops designed for parents accompanied by children.
We send out a list of popular topics that would be easy ones for college reps to do with simple panels and no preparation. Representatives identify the topics they would prefer to conduct. We arrange 4 to 5 different workshops during each of three 45-minute panels. Because college representatives can meet parents, unlike in standard college fair visits, they are normally eager to come.
We arrange for our culinary program to have homemade pizzas, cookies and beverages for reps fresh off a plane as they get ready to conduct the EXPLORE Workshops. Many simply leave their suitcases filled with materials they distribute at the school, so they need only return in the morning with their clothes and carry-on luggage.
Our college fair brings them back for a 10 a.m. start time. By noon, they stop for lunch. That same culinary program makes a large seafood dinner for college fair reps on Wednesday. This feast attracts many to want to return the next year.
The other thing that attracts them is the evaluation data. We collect data from students on the impact of the reps on their postsecondary decisions. This very powerful piece of information gets collated, summarized and returned to college reps to remind them of the impact of their meetings with our students. The other piece of information that continues to influence them to return is the data listing how many school districts come to Ketchikan to meet them — amounting to one day here while meeting students from six different school districts that come here to meet them.
The complaint “nobody told me” is never a problem here. We have faxes we send to our TV and radio stations, as well as newspaper. Each of the neighboring school districts are notified and invited. Some even organize grants or special ferries to get large groups of students here. We even house visiting school students in our school overnight to accommodate those needs and minimize expense.
What’s important about this event is our institutionalization of this program. By having them return every we create a systemic effort to introduce our students to college data that may not be a ready source of information to students who did not grow up in households comprised of family members not familiar with college life.
Furthermore, our college fair has branched out so we now have students meeting prospective employers. Interestingly, some of those employers are now offering to pay for the education of students willing to return as college graduates seeking employment there. This is a local offer now available at our local hospital and shipyard as well as an engineering office. We believe the college fair has served to enhance and advertise these paid educational opportunities and further increase the importance and benefit of our annual college fairs.