Rocky greets fifth graders from the Emma E. Booker and Bay Haven schools.

USF Sarasota-Manatee helps Sarasota fifth graders learn ‘What I Can Be with a College Degree’

By: Rich Shopes

Posted: April 26, 2019

Twelve-year-old Makahlia Pride has her career path figured out: She wants to become a police detective and put away bad guys.

Meanwhile, fellow student Maddison Smith wants to pursue a fashion career, while her friend Darshea Benjamin is set on becoming a neurosurgeon.

“I feel bad for people who have brain tumors and cancer, and I want to be able to help them,” the 11-year-old said.

The three were among about 180 fifth graders who visited the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee on Thursday for a special annual event called, “What I Can Be with a College Degree.”

Students from Sarasota-based Emma E. Booker and Bay Haven elementary schools visited the campus for about three hours to learn what it takes to get into college and how to choose a career path that’s right for them.

While the students have years to figure out their vocations, educators say it isn’t too early to talk about long-range goals, including college life and careers.

“Thinking about this now gives them a goal, and it makes them think that it’s possible to go to college, that this is something to shoot for,” said Gretchen Johnson, a special education teacher at Booker. “It’s important to plant the seed now.”

The students arrived at 9:45 a.m. and gathered at the Selby Auditorium. Then they divided into groups to tour the campus and participate in interactive presentations designed to help them think about higher education. One of the sessions encouraged students to talk about possible careers and what they entail, while another focused on how students can improve their chances of getting into college.

Admissions counselors said while many students don’t think about college until their junior or senior years, it’s important to focus on grades and other scholastic goals much earlier, so when it’s time to choose a program they have the best options available.

Colleges, meanwhile, juggle a multitude of criteria when deciding to admit a student. Good grades and SAT/ACT scores are important, but sports participation and a host of other activities – during and after school – also figure strongly into decisions.

To illustrate the point, USFSM’s admissions team conducted an exercise with the students. Several were given cards that displayed random GPA numbers and asked to step forward. Those with the highest GPA were ushered to the front of the line.

However, as the exercise progressed, other students jumped ahead based on additional criteria, such as high SAT scores, participation in sports or involvement in activities that emphasize responsibility or leadership. Well-written student essays counted too.

While academics weigh heavily into their decisions, admissions officials said, colleges also consider other “soft skills” to identify well-rounded individuals and those with leadership potential.

“If you’re the first person in your family to go to college, that will move you up the line, as well,” said Sean Grosso, coordinator of admissions outreach. “Colleges like to help students who are the first in their family to attend college.”

Even an application’s timing can make a difference, as colleges want students to submit their entry applications early in the process.

In addition to those sessions, Helene Robinson, EdD, led an exercise where students were taught academic concepts through movement. Integrating the arts with science, the session culminated with a dance performance that explained the three states of matter.

Marie Byrd, EdD, director of USFSM’s School of Education, introduced “What I Can Be with a College Degree” six years ago.

She said fifth grade is a pivotal time for students, just as they’re preparing for middle school and a more academically rigorous setting. She also said that many students grow up thinking that college isn’t possible for them because of economic or familial factors, but that’s not true.

“I’m here to say to the fifth graders that you can go to college,” Byrd said. “Do not limit yourselves. There are many programs to provide you with assistance and guidance. If you want to go to college, begin affirming now that you will go to college.”

To learn more about USF Sarasota-Manatee’s degree and certification programs, visit

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