“Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.”

So says the old Chinese proverb.

Well, big doors are opening for students in the Gifted & Talented program at Harrison’s Washington Middle School who recently participated in the ultimate field trip — a trip to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This component of the years-long college readiness initiative was organized by Washington Middle School teachers Karen Cristalli and Tara Maziou.

With Harvard undergraduate student tour guides, 30 Harrison students enjoyed a walking tour of the campus. Students learned about the university application process, financial aid opportunities, Harvard’s history and which fields of study are available at the university. Additionally, they learned about campus life and the university housing system.

Eighth-grader Amanda Caldeira Gomes summed it up best.

“This trip to Harvard was not only fun, but I learned how the application process goes and what campus life is like,” Gomes said. “The tour was highly informational and it has me thinking of applying to Harvard.”

Cristalli, an English/language arts teacher who also directs the district’s Gifted and Talented program, saw it as an excellent opportunity to have students work on their own individualized programs of study under the umbrella of the G&T program.

“Creating opportunities like this for our students is the ultimate dream as a program coordinator,” she said. “I believe half the battle is showing students that they belong at any higher learning institution they choose. It’s our job to show them it’s possible to get there.”

For one WMS student, the trip had a cool personal connection.

Seventh-grader Miguel Tobar was especially happy to travel to Harvard because he was able to meet up with his cousin Manuel — a first year economics student who shared his experiences with the students from Harrison.

Harrison Public Schools Superintendent of Schools Maureen Kroog spoke about recent changes within the district.

“Our Gifted & Talented program began as an afterschool activity for students who tested in,” Kroog said. “Fortunately, the State of New Jersey has now recognized G&T as special education and our students receive specialized instruction during their regular school day. In Harrison, we’ve incorporated G&T classes into every school and the students are instructed by specially trained teachers.

“Program Coordinator Karen Cristalli is working with the New Jersey Department of Education and has presented at that level. She keeps up to date with current requirements and works one on one with students in the program. Karen has enabled our G&T program to grow and we’ve seen more students are testing into the program because of early recognition and teacher referral.”

The Harvard trip is the fourth in a series of Ivy League campus tours run by Cristalli and Maziou.

“This all started in 2017, with our first visit to the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Young Women in STEM Conference,” Maziou said. “After that visit, students expressed a specific interest in visiting other college campuses, so since then, we’ve also toured Columbia and Yale universities.”

Each visit focused on increased exposure to prepare middle and early high school students for the college application process.

This exposure has been proven to be fruitful as two Harrison High School students who were part of the earlier trip to Columbia University are now seniors with Ivy League admissions. Other G&T program participants are headed to Tufts, Emory and UC Irvine.

David Dias recently received news of his acceptance to Princeton University and plans to attend in the fall. He is also this year’s valedictorian.

“As a seventh-grade student in Washington Middle School, I was fortunate enough to take a tour around Columbia University’s campus,” Dias said. “For the first time in my life, I walked among Ivy League students, not truly understanding what it meant to attend an institution like Columbia. On our ride home, my teacher summed up the trip by pointing out how close the school was to Harrison.

“I visited Yale University the following year, and walking around their campus seemed beyond belief. By this point, I had a thorough understanding of the Ivy League, and even the details in the architecture blew me away.  Looking back, having the honor of being admitted into two Ivy League schools, I can confidently say that these trips inspired my Ivy dreams. They allowed me to step outside our small town, and truly see what the world has to offer,”

Current HHS senior Julia Navarro was also recently accepted into the University of Pennsylvania.

“The experiences I’ve had on the middle school Ivy League tours have been indispensable to my journey,” Navarro said. “I can still vividly look back on the ‘Women in STEM’ Princeton trip, knowing that seeing all those young women succeeding in this field helped push me to pursue both computer science and environmental studies.

“Getting to witness the distinct world of the Ivies made me realize that these schools could be in my future. I ended up applying to a few and was recently accepted to the University of Pennsylvania. This was such a dream come true and I’m so thankful that I had already had the opportunity to visit Ivy League schools that I might have otherwise been too fearful to pursue.”

Naturally, the Harvard trip was a huge hit with all of the participating students.

Said Harrison High School student Alexa Hernandez: “As a high school sophomore, my college research has already started, and learning about Harvard’s academics and admissions process has impacted what I’m looking for in other colleges that I’m researching.”

Washington Middle School seventh-grader Zainab Arslan concurred.

“I enjoyed that we went to a place that was so far away and it gave me an idea for my own college application,” Arslan said.

While most of the campus tours have been of Ivy League universities, Maziou and Cristalli have also taken student groups to New York University and Rutgers University and plan to visit even more colleges in the near future. The plan is to provide students with maximum exposure to various institutions of higher learning and demystify both the application and financial aid process.

To this end, a college preparation unit was recently added to the district’s G&T curriculum, ensuring middle schoolers have early exposure to all aspects of applying to and paying for college. Program highlights include a focus on minimizing student debt. The campus tour initiative centers on educational access for all students.

“Our message to our students, every time we step foot on a college campus, is that this is a place you belong,” Maziou said. “With time, each student will plan for their future beyond high school, but our mission is to help younger students become aware just how many options are available.”

Back home in Harrison after their 15-hour journey, the students have already begun planning their next campus tour, with Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania among the top contenders.



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Laura Comppen | Special to The Observer