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EXCHANGE: Michelle Obama's college push reaches Macon County

Posted 5:05 a.m. Thursday

— Warrensburg-Latham High School senior Megan Olinger has already made plans for after graduation.

"But I just want to see more options," said Olinger, who wants to transfer to Southern Illinois University after completing an associate degree at Richland Community College.

Olinger and about 50 other area high school students attended College Signing Day on April 24 at Richland Community College to learn about those other choices and celebrate the decisions they have already made.

The event is part of the nationwide Better Make Room campaign introduced in 2015 by former First Lady Michelle Obama to encourage students to continue their education after high school. Event organizer Taylor Vidmar, a freshman at Richland, is among 17 students chosen in January to be part of the campaign's student advisory board.

"The main goal is to celebrate local seniors who've committed to higher education," Vidmar said.

Representatives from various colleges were available to answer all students' questions, including the University of Illinois at Springfield, Eastern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

High schools with students attending the event included Warrensburg-Latham, Central A&M, Cerro Gordo and Eisenhower, each with about seven students.

"It's not a huge number, but I still think it is a good amount," Vidmar said of the initial local effort.

College Signing Days are scheduled for other dates throughout the country.

Vidmar said the goal of the Better Make Room is to help the United States become one of the leaders in higher education, which includes community colleges, military or technical training and four-year colleges.

"We have college signing days for athletes, and it is a big deal, but they wanted to do something like that for all students, so all students get that celebration," Vidmar said. "It is a big decision."

Warrensburg-Latham High School guidance counselor Shelli Billingsley brought eight students. Although her students have already made plans, she felt the event would help answer any questions they might have.

"I tell them they are not going to make a mistake as long as they are moving forward," she said. "You don't have to go to a four-year college, but you have to have a plan. It is still scary, but you have a direction.

As the end of the school year approaches, Billingsley has begun to see the excitement in her students about going to college.

"I can see the relief in the faces. Now they have a direction," she said.

Billingsley encouraged Cheyenne Wendell to attend the event with her classmates. Although she has registered for Southern Illinois University classes in the fall, the high school senior was ready to listen to other educators.

"I'd kind of like to learn from people who already have their life figured out and see the steps they took," she said. "I want some good advice."

The Better Make Room campaign is part of Michelle Obama's Reach Higher initiative, which aims to inspire every student in America to take charge of their future by continuing their education, according to the organization's website.

State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, was one of three presenters speaking to the students, along with WAND-TV reporter Megan O'Dell and Richland Community College professor Dr. Jarmese Sherrod. Vidmar chose the speakers, she said, because of their understanding of the value of higher education.

Manar, who has been among the leaders in the General Assembly working on education funding reform, recounted his plans before graduating high school. He enrolled in a community college to get college credit but had no goal to get involved in politics.

"I didn't know at the time how many doors would open with just one course," he said. "It was hard to believe how many opportunities presented themselves to me because I enrolled in a class."

He encouraged the students to strive for their aspirations, never give up.

"That is how you are going to be successful," he said.

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Source: (Decatur) Herald & Review, http://bit.ly/2p0jCbe

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