At a restaurant along the east coast of Florida, close enough to hear the waves, 15-year-old October Rainey took a chance. Passing over burgers and chicken fingers, she looked at the waitress and summoned the courage to sample something she’d never seen before: “I’ll have the oysters, thank you.”

At first not sure how to tackle her meal, the ninth grader from Christiansburg High School set aside the tiny fork she was given and picked up each shell, raising it to her mouth and devouring each oyster one by one. But not before pushing aside the spinach on top. Even adventurous souls have their limits.

Meanwhile, Blacksburg High School’s Stella Sun ordered alligator tail. She had never seen an alligator in person, let alone eaten one, but she finished every last bite. Her review: “It’s good. It tastes like chicken.”

From planes to palm trees, alligators to algae labs, these high schoolers from Southwest Virginia spent nearly a week navigating a world very different from their own hometowns while attending a national conference, all thanks to Virginia Tech TRIO Programs’ Talent Search.

The University of Florida’s iDigTRIO Biological Career Conference and Fair introduced the students to the wide variety of careers in the sciences and provided opportunities for them to meet other students from across the country. But the insiders’ glimpse of the sciences wasn’t the only benefit.

“Leaving family and friends behind for a weeklong trip hundreds of miles from home leaves a lasting impression on many of our students,” said Kyra Heatherman, a Talent Search advisor who led the trip. “Several of them have never traveled by airplane or gone through airport security. That experience — as well as bunking with a roommate, eating new foods, and touring college campuses — helps give students confidence that they have what it takes to pursue a degree after high school.”

And it’s all free through Talent Search, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Education that helps students in sixth through 12th grades stay on track to graduate and go on to pursue higher education. From rural Appalachian towns to cities such as Lynchburg and Martinsville, the program at Virginia Tech serves up to 680 students a year across 24 schools in Southwest Virginia.

Two TRIO programs, Talent Search and Upward Bound, have been a part of Virginia Tech for about 50 years, but Director Frances Clark stresses that they aren’t just for those looking to attend Virginia Tech. Students tour other colleges and universities, both in and out of Virginia, with about 75 percent of participants going on to pursue a degree after high school.

“We help them feel confident about pursuing a college education — even if Virginia Tech is not their final choice,” Clark said.

Four teens gather around yellow flowers, picking them and putting them in their hair.
Talent Search participants Stella Sun (from left), October Rainey, D’Quori Horsley, and Grace Lafon pick edible flowers during a tour of the University of Florida’s Field and Fork Campus Food Program. Photo by Diane Deffenbaugh for Virginia Tech.

At least two-thirds of Talent Search participants must be from low-income backgrounds and families in which neither parent has a bachelor’s degree. But a need, for example, to improve social skills or improve academic performance can also make a student eligible to apply for the program.

Grace Lafon, a sophomore at Blacksburg High School, said she joined Talent Search in middle school to get extra help with reading. Over the years, she has participated in many Talent Search camps and campus tours, including the trip to Florida.

“Talent Search has really provided me so many different kinds of opportunities to learn. I love the chance to be introduced to a new town and school. It’s really cool to go somewhere new and see what the differences are,” she said.

October said the program helps her meet new people and develop better friendships. “I really like the chance to get out of Virginia and see new places, plus spending time with more people other than my family,” she said. “Talent Search helps me find new friends and better friends.”

With a goal to one day study insects, she was especially enthralled by the Florida Museum of Natural History’s butterfly exhibit, where hundreds of the colorful insects flitted about a lush rainforest landscape, sometimes even landing on students’ shoulders. Meanwhile, Lynchburg High School student D’Quori Horsley’s favorite part was an escape room, where the students had to work together to solve a series of difficult puzzles in less than an hour.

“We try to make the experiences educational but also fun and engaging,” Heatherman said. “You can see the students light up and enjoy learning when they are able to take part in hands-on activities.”

In a University of Florida biological engineering lab, the students were captivated by experiments taking place on algae. From looking through microscopes to speaking with graduate students about their work, the students got a taste of what it is really like to study science. Invited to put on gloves and do their own experiment, they each injected an alcohol solution into a vial of bright green algae to watch the reaction. Students who weren’t so sure about science as a career were suddenly thinking twice.

Clark said giving students that wider perspective on the world and their place in it is the magic of TRIO Programs, which is part of Outreach and International Affairs. Students are offered workshops on topics such as careers, financial literacy, and study skills. The program also provides students and their families the keys to understanding college admissions, scholarships, and the various financial aid programs that can help, Clark said.

“When students are the first in their family to attend college, the process seems overwhelming,” Clark said. “It’s difficult to know what to do and when to do it. We help make that process easier and give them the skills they will need to succeed once they are there.”

Middle and high school students in eligible school districts can apply to take part in Talent Search through this form. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis, but the priority application deadline for summer enrollment is April 15. 

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