"Believe in yourself," University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto told fifth-graders from Lexington's Northern Elementary School who toured UK Wednesday as part of a college readiness initiative.
"I don't care what anybody says to you. I don't care what happens. I want you to believe in yourself."
"Do you know what I remember about first grade?" he asked the group of 78 students.
"I was in the group with the slow readers. I am a slow reader. But I am a persistent reader. It may take me longer, but I am going to get there. You should always know that you have the ability to succeed."
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Capilouto told students that whether they go to UK or another school, college is important.
Lori Vogel, a social worker at Northern, said students were able to visit UK on Wednesday because the school received a grant to enhance college and career readiness through the Urban County Government's Partners for Youth program.Through the grant of about $800, Vogel takes fourth- and fifth-grade students to local colleges to help them envision themselves on campus one day.
This year, school officials will take students to UK, Transylvania University, Bluegrass Community and Technical College, and Georgetown College.
Vogel said she has tried to expose students as early as possible to colleges.
"The earlier we start getting them to think about college, the better," Vogel said. "If they know what's going to come after high school and middle school, then maybe they can be thinking of making good choices now."
Northern is designated in the state testing system as a needs-improvement school. It is considered by state education officials as a "focus" school in that it has had problems closing the academic achievement gap for minority, poor and disabled students.
Sixty-eight percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Twenty-nine percent of the students are white, 38 percent are black and 29 percent Hispanic.
"I want them to start dreaming about going to college," Capilouto said after he talked to the students for more than 30 minutes in a stately room in the administration building lined with portraits of former UK presidents.
"I want them to see themselves on a college campus early in life. I want it to be a welcoming experience so that they are not intimidated by it."
One of the students on the tour, Blake Wright, 10, said he hoped the visit would give him information about the university's history. He said he wanted to attend UK "to become a basketball player and learn how to spend money and take care of money."
The students, mostly 10 years old, asked Capilouto blunt questions. His replies were candid.
In answering questions, Capilouto told the students not to be afraid to ask for help as they pursued an education. He said that as a new college student, he felt intimidated and was "worried about telling somebody what I didn't know."
He told them he was a football player. He said he never planned on becoming a college president.
At first, "I wasn't the most serious student, but I got a great second and third chance," Capilouto said. He told them he got into dental school, and "I decided for once in my life I was going to prove myself academically."
"I applied myself," Capilouto said. As he achieved higher levels of learning, he studied fields that helped him understand how to serve a university, he said.
One girl asked him if there have been students kicked out of UK since he has been president.
Capilouto told her yes, but "not a lot" and that the first efforts are to get students to learn from their mistakes.
After he told the students goodbye, Capilouto said in an interview that he took the tack he did with the students because letting any of them stop believing in themselves would be "a disservice."
"They can all make it," he said.