OGDEN, Utah — When Mindi Helmandollar steps into her fourth-grade classroom on Friday mornings, she is greeted with a sea of orange and black. In Corvallis, that might not seem unusual, but Helmandollar is teaching at an elementary school in Ogden, Utah, where Weber State University’s purple and white are more likely to be seen.
Helmandollar’s fourth graders are infused with Beaver spirit, and not just because their teacher is a proud alum of Oregon State University, graduating in 2009 with a business management degree. Every classroom teacher in Lincoln Elementary School has been asked to adopt a different university in order to get their students excited about going to college. For Helmandollar, it was an easy choice.
“I attended two other colleges before I went to Oregon State,” she said. “Oregon State is where I felt my teachers actually knew my name and took the time to get to know me.”
Lincoln is a Title 1 school, which means it has a large low-income population. Inspiring these kids to consider a university degree is especially important, Helmandollar says.
“The biggest challenge working in a Title 1 school is that a lot of the students’ home lives are hard,” she said. “There are many students who haven’t eaten since lunch the day before. They are constantly moving schools, they can’t sleep because they are sharing rooms with brothers and sisters, and they are also usually splitting time between two homes or a parent is in prison. All of those reasons make getting our students excited and aware about the possibilities of college a necessity so they can have a promising future.”
One of the ways that teachers at Lincoln get their kids excited is allowing them to visualize one particular university and become steeped in its traditions and stories. As a former OSU cheerleader, instilling school spirit comes easy. She’s found ways to weave it into almost every lesson and aspect of her classroom. Twice a day they sing the OSU Fight song. They pass by walls decorated with OSU posters. They learn vocabulary words like “transcripts” and “syllabus.” When they move up a level in math, they progress from a bachelor’s to a master’s, and finally to a Ph.D level.
“One of our writing activities was to write a letter to an Oregon State student asking them questions that they may want to know before they go there when they get older,” Helmandollar said. And every Friday, they all wear orange and black.
The approach seems to be working. One of Helmandollar’s students told her that his father had dreamed of becoming a doctor, but hadn’t gone to college, and was working as a painter. After learning that students of all ages attend college, he went home to tell his dad that he could still pursue a degree.
“I thought that was really neat to see how my students are even encouraging their parents to go to college so they can still achieve their dreams,” she said.
Helmandollar plans on visiting her alma mater for the Homecoming game, but for her, OSU is as close as stepping into her own classroom each morning. And she’s determined that the success she found at OSU is something that her own students will one day discover for themselves.
“All students have dreams of becoming something,” she said. “Letting them know and believe they can do it gives them the opportunity of becoming something great. They must also understand that they need to work hard and that there are no excuses in order to get to college, so developing good work and study habits now will help them succeed throughout their schooling.”
~ Theresa Hogue