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SHIPROCK – When asked about taking the first step to a college education, Apache Elementary School fifth-grader BJ Ray did not hesitate to answer.

"Fill out an application," Ray said.

Ray was one of 75 fifth-grade students who traveled from Farmington to participate in Shi'yaz'hi "My Little One" College Day on Friday at Diné College's south campus here.

The purpose of the event was to introduce students to the college environment, including how to apply for admission, what kind of majors are available and the various resources available to help cover the cost of tuition.

Ray said the event was a good one, explaining it showed him the process he would have to go through to become an orthopedic surgeon.

Esther Paul, a student recruiter at Diné College, said the event falls under the college's mission of promoting post-secondary education through student development of all ages.

"We're turning the fifth-grader into a college student," Paul said.

Paul's responsibilities as a recruiter include encouraging students to think about attending college.

"You want to get that seed planted for them. ...If we can encourage these kids to start planting that educational seed, that will get them started thinking about it," she said.

Paul explained that in late November, Megan Sierz, the fifth-grade writing teacher at Apache Elementary, contacted the college about arranging a college day. Sierz said she was raised in poverty in Michigan, and her mom was a single parent who was the first in her family to attend college.

"When I was younger, she took me to her community college and her university, to see the campuses, and it made a big impression on me," Sierz said.

Sharing that feeling was one reason for Friday's event, as well as showing students how to apply for admissions, register for classes and explore financial aid opportunities.

"What I heard a lot of students say is, they don't know anyone who's gone to college. ...To understand now in fifth grade, there are people out there — outside of your family — who can help you reach your goals, I think that's a really important message for them," Sierz said.

In talking to her students, Sierz said a number of them did not know about the higher education opportunities available in the area.

"I wanted them to see the choices for themselves," she said.

Diné College was selected because Apache Elementary has a high number of Navajo students, and Sierz understands a sense of community is important to the Navajo people.

"Since so many of our students are Navajo and, yet, didn't know that this college even existed, I wanted to open their eyes to that. A lot of them, their family is so important to them, they shouldn't have to leave in order to go to college," she said.

During the visit, students received packets that included $7,000 in pretend money, which they used to pay tuition and other expenses. They also attended classes centering on reading, writing, math and Navajo. At the end of the program, they earned certificates stating they had graduated from college.

Sandra Begay, administrative assistant for the campus learning center, explained the first step to enrolling in college is submitting an application. She also talked about scholarship opportunities that are available to students such as the Office of Navajo Nation Scholarship.

Leander Smiley was one of the parents who attended college day.He said he and his wife often talk to their daughter, Summer Rain Smiley, about attending college. Summer also learns about higher education from an older sister who attends San Juan College, he added.

"It's important to us," Leander Smiley said.

Summer said the event taught her about applying for college and how it will help her fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher.

"I like it," she said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.

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