Rural Youth Need to Be Seen and Heard

06/16/2010 06:10 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Several weeks ago, while chatting with a male friend in my office, an associate's seven-year old adoptive son popped his head through the door to say hello -- as is his custom. Although, more subdued than normal -- perhaps fatigue or a tough day at school -- he extended an arm to shake my friends hand.

At the end of his visit, which lasted all of two minutes, my friend made a point of saying to the youth "hey man, don't change: you're beautiful" and I was struck by what transpired. Instantly, the boy's posture shifted. He appeared to grow an inch and a half taller and a smile erupted across his face. It was evident -- he felt "seen."

I was reminded of that moment this past week while filming a group of teens at a Youth Summit called "Gear Up" (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) TN, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Education aimed at increasing the number of low-income students who will hopefully choose a post-secondary education.

Before being asked to film, I had never heard of GEAR UP or any such program. I was surprised to learn that for the past five years it has served 6,000 students per year in 47 schools in rural counties all across Tennessee.

Our film crew was charged with following approximately 150 students for two days in what is best described as an "Amazing Race" exercise as they experienced the chaos, stress and confusion of a simulated first day of college. There were approximately 10 items on a list of tasks needed for completion -- included obtaining student ID's, registering for classes, paying tuition -- all real life tasks required for entry level students.

Assigned several students to trail, we learned they came from the farthest corners of Tennessee and even though we spoke the same language, some required careful concentration in order to comprehend.

I was struck by one of the young men we were to follow -- whom I will refer to as "Chad". Chad was tall, quiet and rather self-effacing. To say he lacked confidence is an understatement. He identified as biracial and during our first interview Chad explained that apart from his step-father -- who never graduated -- he would be the first college student in his entire family -- "if I go" he added.

When pressed further about applying, Chad looked down, shifted feet and said "Yeah, I might -- I just don't know if I will graduate". It seemed that perhaps Chad just didn't feel entitled to imagine himself beyond his current circumstances.

Throughout the two days, we witnessed students who clearly thrived on the adrenaline and raced around the campus without reprieve. Their enthusiasm was unbridled. Although engaged, Chad seemed to saunter a bit more than others and we thought perhaps he might not finish.

As a filmmaker, I wondered at one point whether we should have chosen another youth who was maybe more "interesting" but decided that since the race was almost over, we needed to follow Chad through to the end.

After the race, the youth gathered to debrief the challenges of the day and then headed off to "mock classes", which they had previously selected after hearing pitches from college professors trying to recruit students into their respective classes.

We followed Chad (who did complete the race) into a session offered by Jeff Dotts, the Director of Nashville College Connection, a community based non-profit college access program. He gave a talk to prospective students titled "Vision isn't everything -- it's the only thing."

In the presentation, Dott's exposed the myths and half-truths about college opportunities and flipped the conversation by putting an emphasis on how colleges need students -- rather than the reverse.

Half way through the lecture I heard Dotts mention something about scholarships and how often low income rural southern youth assume that a college education is something so far "out of their" reach and convince themselves that it's "not possible".

And that is when it happened. Chad, who up until now had been leaning on his chin, looked up and repositioned himself in his chair as if Dotts was speaking directly (and only) to him. The cameraman kept his focus aimed on Chad and we captured a moment of recognition -- if not transformation -- on film.

After the lecture we found Chad in the lobby, chatting with other students, more animated than we had seen all day. When we asked him after the last two days if he still felt the same about college -- or if something changed -- he responded immediately "something Mr. Jeff said made me realize there are colleges out there looking for someone just like me." And as if he had never expressed any doubts in the previous interview, Chad said firmly, "Oh, I'm going to college and I'm going to finish".

As we left the campus, a beautiful young student from Grundy County approached us. She explained the GEAR UP program was no longer being funded and wanted us to know that without it she would never dreamed of going to college. She was sad because she was hoping some day her own children might benefit from the program.

She then asked if we would interview her on camera. Like Chad and the seven year old in my office a few weeks ago, it seemed that she too needed be "seen".