ACE Day 2014 ACE Day gave fifth-grade students the college experience at UCF. Video by Melissa Catalanotto.


Editor's note: This story was originally published on March 18, 2014:


Amid all the tests that teachers spend the school year preparing students for, 650 fifth-graders in Orange County got to take a break and get a real Knight's experience.

Achieve a College Education Day, or ACE Day, provides an opportunity for students from Title I schools — schools where the majority of the students are eligible for or receive free and reduced lunch — to visit UCF and learn from more than 200 student volunteers that college is an attainable option for their future.

Around 100 students each came from Lake Weston, Millennia, Shingle Creek, Three Points, West Oaks, Pineloch and Hillcrest elementary schools. Hillcrest is the only school that was not a Title I school, according to Kelly Astro, ACE Day coordinator and the director of research and civic engagement in the Burnett Honors College.

"The whole reason it started was a principal came to me and said, 'Our field trip for fifth grade is to the jail, is there something that we can do that would be more motivational?'" Astro said.

Many of the students in these schools are familiar with jail because they have family members there, Astro said.

The event started nine years ago, originally with seventh-grade students coming to UCF. Astro said they changed it to fifth grade because they realized that that is the more critical point in which students decide what route to take in middle and high school.

Students arrived in the Pegasus Ballroom Monday morning to loud music, cheers and high-fives from volunteers and a performance by the UCF cheerleaders.

Before letting the students depart with their groups to get started on their activities, however, Alvin Wang, dean of the Burnett Honors College, advised the students of the importance of having the dream to be successful.

"Envision yourself in the future as a successful, happy and respected leader," Wang said. "All of you deserve this dream and all of you should have this dream for yourself."

Students got to spend the rest of the afternoon attending different sessions presented by professors and guest speakers. Astro said the students would attend one arts and humanities session and one STEM-related session.

Some of the activities students got to do were visit an interactive improv theater class, visit the art gallery in the Visual Arts Building, see animal skulls in a biology lab and more.

All the groups came together in the Student Union to see a presentation by Tony Mainolfi, chief meteorologist at Orlando's NBC affiliate WESH 2 News.

Mainolfi answered questions about tornados and hurricanes, used student volunteers to demonstrate how different weather phenomenons work, explained the importance of internships and joked with the students that although the chance of a tornado in Monday's gloomy weather was unlikely, the chance was "not zero."

Astro said that in previous years, ACE Day had only accommodated 500 students; she said they were able to get more this year because Veolia Transportation, which provides the shuttle service for UCF, was able to donate more transportation this year.

"Our dream is to have 1,000 fifth-graders," Astro said. "We'll get there some day. If enough people continue to help support this, we'll get there."

Victor Baez, 11, said his favorite event was listening to Mainolfi talk about tornadoes.

"Sometimes you don't even know when it's going to be the time that the tornado is going to come or not, and he told us stuff about tornados forming," Victor said.

He said that being at UCF Monday made him want to come to UCF and be in the National Guard.

After lunch, hanging out with Knightro and a tour of the Libra dorms, the students gathered back into the ballroom where Student Government Association President Melissa Westbrook gave a closing address in which she encouraged students to listen to their parents and teachers.

"You don't want to get to my age, make a mistake and then realize 'Man, I really should have listened to mom then,'" Westbrook said. "They really have your best interests at heart."

Astro said she knows of at least one student from when they worked with seventh-graders who came to UCF to study biology because of what they saw during the biology presentation at ACE Day.

"This is just one of those days that is as meaningful for the volunteers as it is for the students, to hear these fifth-graders walk off this campus saying, 'I can go to college, I'm going to UCF," Astro said. It's almost undescribable how wonderful a feeling that is because you know that you have exposed these students to something they may not a week ago have ever dreamed of."

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