May 17, 2017

Florida College Decision Day, the state’s adoption of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Better Make Room campaign, seeks to recognize all students for their postsecondary plans. As part of the initiative, high schools typically host pep rallies, programs, and other activities adorned with collegiate gear to help foster a college-going culture.

St. Johns River State College in Palatka decided to flip that script and bring Florida College Decision Day to a group of stunned high school seniors.

On May 1, SJR State dispatched five different “prize patrols” to surprise 27 full-tuition scholarship winners at 13 high schools in St. Johns, Clay, and Putnam counties. The recipients — each of whom had designated SJR State as their “college of choice” — were presented with balloons, a candy bouquet, and an SJR State portfolio to go along with their scholarship announcement.

Daniel Barkowitz, SJR State’s dean of enrollment management, said the school got the idea from a video posted by Wheaton College in Massachusetts that involved surprising an early decision candidate by delivering her acceptance notice in person.

“We were talking about what we wanted to do around College Decision Day and around mid-to-late March, I said, ‘What if we did a prize patrol?’” Barkowitz said. “We put this whole thing together in about six weeks.”

Brooke Elasik, SJR State’s orientation and recruitment coordinator, said it was easy getting staff at the college to be a part of the prize patrols.

“We told people the idea, showed them the (Wheaton College) video, and everyone jumped on board,” she said. “It was such a sweet idea.”

Barkowitz noted that SJR State transitioned to an exclusively online scholarship application system this school year for the college’s SJR State Foundation and Financial Aid Fee scholarships. The result was more than 500 scholarship applications, which represented a 37 percent increase from last year.

“Rather than the high schools in our area being the driving force, we decided to be the change agents,” Barkowitz said.

Earlier this school year, SJR State took a similarly proactive approach during its adoption of Florida College Application Week. SJR State partnered with high schools in its service area during the fall and waived the customary $30 application fee.

Dominique Davila, SJR State’s assistant director of admissions, said the idea was to remove a potential barrier and broaden the horizons of high school students.

“A lot of students only know what they see on TV, which is that you immediately go to the big university after high school,” Davila said. “It’s fantastic if you can do that, but there’s also a strategy to doing things a different way. This is a learning process for students, and we’re providing them with choices.”

While Barkowitz concedes that SJR State directly benefited from the college’s efforts to promote college access, he believes it is ultimately in the service of the school’s community at-large.

“It’s both Machiavellian and altruistic because the more people go to college in general, the more people come to us,” he said. “We also recognize that a rising tide lifts all boats, and our president’s (Joe Pickens) vision for who we are ties into the vision that was outlined in these statewide initiatives. Rather than just being a community college, we are the community’s college. We should be viewed as experts and a valuable resource for accessing college.”

To view a video of the SJR State’s prize patrol surprising students during Florida College Decision Day, click here.

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