It had all the characteristics of a typical afternoon for the College of Charleston’s Avery Center garden.
On a warm Tuesday, students eating lunch crowded picnic tables and peppered amphitheater steps, and a small, babbling waterfall was drowned out by their conversation.
But this was not the garden’s standard array of college students.
Rather, they were eighth-graders from Haut Gap Middle School on Johns Island, on the first of a three-day visit to the campus.
For many, it was their first time at the college. Debbie Counts, associate director of admissions, hopes it won’t be their last.
The trip sought to bring the lofty ambition of attending college down to earth for the group as they move up to high school and their college search begins in earnest, she said.
On Tuesday, that meant touring the campus and its museums and getting ready to spend the night in a dorm. Wednesday, it was a series of presentations on making the jump from middle school and a visit to the Grice Marine Laboratory.
“We just want to get them acclimated, let them see, let them imagine that they can be a part of the campus at some point,” Counts said.
For many of the students, that process of imagination and acclimation had already begun, as they spoke of their dream schools, pondered fields of study and fanned themselves while making a long trek down Bull Street to and from the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
Shamara Johnson, 12, wants to study poetry at the college or at Francis Marion University. Elizabeth Pineda, 14, hopes to work as an author and attorney after studying in New York City. Destin Boyles, 14, is set on the College of Charleston and a career in either psychology or nursing.
But first, they were reminded, they have to do well in high school.
“This is not just a visit on a rather warm day,” Curtis Franks, the center’s museum curator, told one group Tuesday. “This is a visit where you are planting some very important seeds; you need to water them, to nurture them.”
Naquita Page-Dawson, Haut Gap’s lead guidance counselor, said she hoped the trip, funded by a $5,000 grant from the S.C. Higher Education Awareness Program, would encourage students to consider college a possibility — and spur them to do well over the next four years.
“My hope is that every student will pursue higher education,” Page-Dawson, herself a 1997 C of C graduate, said. “If we only get one, then we’ve done our job, but I want more than just one.”
The visit, she said, was “a pilot program,” and Counts said she hoped other schools would pursue grants and reach out to replicate Haut Gap’s trip.
In the meantime, this group of students is getting ready for life at St. John’s High School and beyond — and, of course, for their summer break.
At the Avery Center, Franks made sure they knew it.
“Today,” he said, raising his hands by his head, crouching slightly and lowering his voice. “This is just the beginning.”
Reach Thad Moore at 958-7360 or on Twitter @thadmoore.