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November 21, 2013

Talent Search Helping Students Defy the Odds

Studies show that children born to low-income families or parents who never went to college are statistically more likely to end up poor and under-educated themselves.

Kevin Abbott, program director of Talent Search at Rogers State University, says such children can beat the odds, but they have to start early. That's why Talent Search, a federally funded program at Rogers State that helps such students access higher education, begins working with children as early as the sixth grade.

Most children rely on their parents to help make the jump from high school to college, Abbott said. But when the parents themselves lack the financial resources or experience to navigate the higher-education process – including academic advising, financial aid documentation and applications -- the students need someone else to stand in the gap. That's where Talent Search comes in, he said.

The program is showing results, sometimes in extremely difficult environments. In addition to several rural schools, Talent Search operates in seven Tulsa Public Schools where about nine out of every 10 students are poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunches. Despite that challenge, nearly all the TPS students who participate in Talent Search graduate on time.

The program also helps students find the college environment that's right for them, even if it's not at RSU. Two students who started with Talent Search while in the sixth grade are currently attending Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school in New Hampshire.

For Taylor Head of Claremore, RSU proved to be the right fit, though it took a while for her to find that out.

Head said that neither of her parents went to college, so they weren't familiar with the process and, though she was an excellent student, her college ambitions were only vague at first. "I thought, well, I'm a cowgirl, why not OSU," she said.

Talent Search challenged her to think beyond the school's popular image and take into account other factors, such as cost, class size and proximity to her family. The program took her to colleges all around Oklahoma so she could see them for herself.

To make sure she had everything in order when she did decide on a college, the program also provided Head's mother with a special binder that broke the requirements for a successful college application process into digestible benchmarks and requirements.

"It was really a tremendous help in keeping us organized and on track," Kristin Head said.

The process eventually led Taylor Head to RSU, where her grades and extracurricular activities earned her a place on the President's Leadership Class, a highly selective scholarship program that develops young talent. Now a freshman, she's studying Medical/Molecular Biology and hopes to go to medical school.

Some Talent Search students, like Head, come from stable households, even if neither parent went to college. Others are products of deep, multi-generational poverty. The definition of a successful outcome is therefore different for each student, Abbott said.

"Some will go to the Ivy League, others, we just want them to become productive citizens who control their own destiny, rather than getting caught up in the cycle of poverty," he said.

Danayjha Johnson, of Claremore, said that a lot of people didn't expect much from her as she was growing up. Both her parents had been to prison, and her dad is still there.

She still remembers the day word got out at school. A friend, whom she had trusted to keep the secret, let it slip. Before long, everyone was talking about it.

"People just look at you different when they find out, you know?" She said.

Still, with some hard work and guidance from Talent Search, Johnson succeeded in high school and now attends the University of Central Oklahoma on a scholarship.

She said that Talent Search's greatest gift to her was giving her the confidence to pursue her dreams. "It taught me, no matter what you want to do, if you put your mind and your heart into it, you can do it."