CULLOWHEE – Talent Search, a federally funded program located at Western Carolina University, is dedicated to helping the young people of Western North Carolina go places.
During the coming year, one of those places will include the American West, where some Talent Search students will follow in the footsteps of famed explorers Lewis and Clark to commemorate the 200th anniversary of their historic expedition.
Talent Search has been hosted by Western for the past 22 years, and the U.S. Department of Education recently committed $1,430,000 in funding to keep it going for the next four years. The early intervention program identifies students in the seventh grade and follows them through to their high school graduations, providing academic, career and financial aid counseling while encouraging the students to go on to the post-secondary school of their choice.
The Talent Search staff at Western, which consists of director Todd Murdock, three outreach counselors and a program assistant, currently works with about 900 middle and high school students from 14 schools located in Cherokee, Clay, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, and on the Qualla Boundary. The new funding includes money to allow the program to expand into Graham County by serving 80 students at Robbinsville High School and 40 students at Robbinsville Middle School, Murdock said.
Most of the students are the first generation of their families to enroll in college and they must meet economic guidelines, said Murdock, who has directed the program at Western for 10 years, and before that served as a staff counselor.
A survey has indicated that 95 percent of Talent Search participants graduate from high school, and more than 70 percent enroll in post-secondary education, Murdock said.
One of the primary methods Talent Search uses to help young people expand their horizons is outdoor adventure, a big advantage for the program at WCU since it operates in the middle of the natural playground that is the Southern Appalachians, Murdock said.
“Youth are looking for excitement and adventure in their lives. They will find it, but unfortunately they often turn to less healthy forms of stimulation,” said Murdock, a two-time medal winner in canoeing at the U.S. Olympic Festival. “Adventure doesn’t have to be reckless, but it does have to provide excitement and challenge. We’ve found that adventure activities both in the classroom and outdoors provide great tools for the personal growth of the students we serve.”
Murdock said several new Talent Search projects will begin in the coming year that will expand on the outdoor adventure component of the program. The biggest of those is a four-year project in which Talent Search students from the WCU service area will hike, bike and paddle kayaks as they retrace the path of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Plans call for a Talent Search contingent to begin its journey in St. Louis, Mo., next June. The group will follow the trail of Lewis and Clark to Yankton, S.D., and over the next three summers other Talent Search students from WNC will complete the remaining portions of the route, all the way to the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Ore.
Other new projects planned for summer of 2003, Murdock said, include Adventure Treks, which will provide leadership training for students using wilderness programs as a backdrop; a service learning program that will bring students to Western’s campus for a week in July before they return to their communities to conduct service learning projects; and a Girl Power Sea Kayaking Week on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Talent Search is one of three programs established by Congress 35 years ago to enable Americans, regardless of economic circumstances, race or ethnic background, to successfully enter college and graduate. The Upward Bound Math and Science program at Western also focuses on providing support to promising high school students, and the Student Support Services program works with some 250 Western students in helping to facilitate their transition to higher education.
For more information about the Talent Search program at WCU, and plans for the coming year, contact Todd Murdock at (828) 227-7137.
In the photograph...
Swain County middle school students work out their ascent of an “alpine tower” during a recent Talent Search activity near Cherokee.