Deborah Long has been an educator for 40 years, but it wasn’t until 2007, when she helped create the Elon Academy – a college-access and success program for students with limited financial resources and/or no family history of college – that her career came full-circle with her passion for working with underserved students and their families.
“I always say I have three children that I gave birth to, but I now have 140 children – 137 came my way through the Elon Academy. We are like a family in the Elon Academy,” Long says. “We build relationships and trust over a long period of time.”
Those relationships have yielded amazing results. The first students selected five years ago to take part in the program are today rising juniors at colleges and universities across the state. Many Academy graduates have received academic scholarships, including a member of the Alpha Class and a member of the Beta Class (“We name our cohorts by the Greek alphabet,” Long explains) who were awarded scholarships to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University, respectively, as well as Gates Millennium Scholarships funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Last fall, 13 scholars researched and wrote a book titled Speaking Out: Underrepresented Students Challenging the Inequities of College Access, in which they talk about the challenges students who come from limited-income, first generation families face. Long describes the book as powerful, adding they’ve been approached by several faculty members from other universities who want to use the book as a resource in their classes.
“Our students are achievers, they are working hard; they are doing the best they can with the resources that they have,” Long says. “What we want to do is increase their opportunities because when you increase the opportunities, they just thrive and flourish. It’s amazing.”
Ninth grade students accepted into the program spend part of the next three summers engaging in academic and enrichment activities on campus, with Saturday programs for scholars (“We call them scholars so they think of themselves that way”) and their families throughout the year.
“They live in the residence halls, they get Phoenix cards, they experience college life as any college student would. It really prepares them for what they are going to experience once they get to college,” Long says.
The summer after high school graduation, scholars and families participate in the Elon Academy Transitions to College Program. Once on their respective college campuses, Elon Academy graduates and families are provided with continuing support through the Elon Academy College Success Program to ensure college completion. Last summer, the academy launched its Alumni Program, which brings graduates back to visit area high, middle and elementary schools to talk about their experiences in hopes of inspiring others to go to college.
Earlier this year, the Elon Academy staff instituted the Elon Academy Ambassadors Program, which allows scholars to promote college access awareness with Alamance County students in elementary and middle school. The College Education Access Team Mentors program was also launched. As part of this program, Elon University students are hired and trained to serve as mentors both during the summer program and throughout the acdemic year to ensure that scholars are on track for college acceptance.
“Every year with the Elon Academy, we add a new layer of complexity and we learn many new things,” Long says, adding that Elon University students involved with the Academy are also transformed by the program. Many decide to go into Teach for America, become teachers or pursue college-access work. Others decide to support the program financially.
“Mentors come back repeatedly and tell us how this experience has changed their lives,” Long says. “They say, ‘I always took my college education for granted… and I now I realize, here are these students who are struggling, working so hard to have what I’m taking for granted. I now appreciate my classes; when I have to write a paper, I think this is an opportunity.’”
Long wants to make sure all students, regardless of their income or family history, get that opportunity to achieve academic success.
“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need the Elon Academy, but we don’t live in an ideal world, so we do,” she says. “Many of our students are slipping through the cracks and our goal is to make sure that every student who has academic potential, who wants to go to college, will have that opportunity.”
Long joined Elon’s faculty in 1996. She graduated from Colby College in 1970 with a degree in psychology. She earned a master’s degree in elementary education from Virginia State University in 1973 and a doctorate in curriculum, instruction and educational leadership from the University of Memphis in 1996. She received the 2012 Periclean Award for Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility, which is given each year to a member of Elon’s faculty or staff whose community service exemplifies the ideals of Project Pericles.