03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

College From Pennsylvania to Chicago's South Side to the Future, With Fish

Let's celebrate! And let's celebrate fish! And fishing!

Yes, you heard me right.

Between the shootings that happen steps from school boundaries and the domestic violence that splatters on the very kids who are supposed to grow up and lead us to a brighter, better tomorrow, it seems like there's just not a whole lot of good news to celebrate on the teen front.

I have some. Good news -- not fish, that is. But more about fish later.

This weekend while you and I relax Friday after work, then sleep late, overindulge Saturday night, and finally veg in front of the Bears game Sunday afternoon, there'll be about 160 Chicago high school students gathering at Daley College Arturo Velasquez Institute and Little Village Lawndale High School to think deep, intellectual thoughts about the heady topic of food.

The occasion is the "New Frontiers of Knowledge" program a new collaboration between Bucknell University and nine Chicago public and charter schools. The program, starting Friday morning, is bringing together 26 Bucknell University students and faculty members to spend three full days helping our kids think critically, scientifically, economically and artistically about food.

That's right: our group of college-kid-wannabes aren't going to train for some sort of academic competition or prepare themselves to do well on standardized tests, they'll be talking, questioning, analyzing, defining problems, drawing conclusions and reflecting.

In short the all-volunteer Bucknell crew -- fresh in from a ten-hour road trip from their Lewisburg, PA campus -- will be teaching our kids what it really takes to succeed after high school graduation.

"For twenty years we've worked with populations of students from average to the best and the first thing we discovered is that the number one determinant of success in college is not academic ability, rather, it's the ability to be self-directed and to be able to do critical processing," said Rolando Arroyo-Sucre, the chief officer for diversity and equity at Bucknell University, who is spearheading this extremely ambitious project.

Triggered in part by the 2008 report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, "From High School to the Future: Potholes on the Road to College," and Bucknell University's strategic plan to increase diversity on its campus, the collaboration wants to help prepare talented underrepresented inner city Chicago high school students for admission and academic achievement at private, selective, liberal arts colleges.

Translation: this weekend, while small groups are busily looking at food-wonderful-food through the lenses of the key components of liberal arts education, our high-schoolers will be gleaning from the Bucknellians what the demands are at highly selective liberal arts colleges and universities, what the transition from high school to college means, and, frankly, how to deal with being a kid from the other side of the tracks attending a predominantly white institution of higher education.

During the training of the Bucknell volunteers, Arroyo-Sucre said he emphasized that despite the fact that the high school participants will be underprivileged, the bigger lessons to impart should revolve around familiarity with the higher education culture. "Hispanics, blacks, poor whites, the challenge for them is not a color one, it's actually socio-economical and the lack of familiarity with the system," Arroyo-Sucre said.

"These kids will have fun working in teams, making presentations, having side conversations about college life, and gain valuable peer-to-peer relationships, but the really exciting thing is this idea of the 160 of the best and brightest realizing they are not alone," Arroyo-Sucre gushed. "I've seen it before, I've seen the students realize it is okay to be what they are -- to be smart. They see it's okay because there is a critical mass of people who feel the way they do, people who enjoy learning."

When I caught up with Abraham Ramirez, 15, and Martina Camacho, 16, both from Hubbard High School on the city's far-Southwest Side, believe me, they were ready to squeeze every drop of opportunity from the experience.

"I'm looking at it like a way to figure out how I'm going to get there," Abraham, a sophomore, told me, referring to "college" as a not a place but almost as another world. "I want a good career when I grow up, and spending the weekend with my friends and college people sounds interesting."

Martina, a junior who has had a life-long dream of becoming a pediatrician, is especially looking forward to finding out what this whole "thinking out of the box" business is and how she can use it to get to where she's going. "I want this [experience] to be something I can use outside of school, like, to really improve my life."

She won't be disappointed: this weekend is just the beginning of a years-long collaborative process between students and the Bucknell crew. They'll be keeping in touch through web-based communication tools, working on a long-distance group project that will last a full year, and prepare for a conference next fall, all while maintaining the very relationships that will de-mystify college not only for themselves, but for their friends and families as well.

Arroyo-Sucre has the highest of hopes, not only for this "class" but for the ripple effect it could have. "As we get the student portion of this program set, in the future we'd like to include teachers and counselors to teach them how the college professors approach the work. Then there are the parents -- the idea is to find professional mentors for parents and creating small groups where the parents can ask questions, have brag time, and get to feel comfortable with learning and enabling their students to learn," Arroyo-Sucre said. "Teaching parents how to help develop skills and instill motivation in their students is key."

Of course this out-of-town, fresh-faced, idealistic team has their work cut out for them but they're dreaming big for Chicago students -- thank goodness -- even as we residents wallow in self-pity for how enormous their challenges are.

Arroyo-Sucre sees it as a simple thing, really, "We're talking about these high-level theories for college admission and success, but we're not giving away fish, we'll be teaching these students how to catch their own."

Esther J. Cepeda writes about education -- unrelated to fishing -- and much, much more on