INDIANAPOLIS – Alaina Cross doesn’t hesitate when asked what she wants to be when she grows up.

Without a doubt, the Harris Elementary kindergartner exclaims she’s going to be a doctor, and she knows she’ll have to go to college to achieve that dream. Friday, as she nibbled on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, she decided she wants to be a Jaguar.

The day Alaina leaves for college is still 13 years away, but local educators say they want to inspire students and their families to start thinking about college early. Hoping to excite the county’s littlest learners to start dreaming about their futures, educators took students to IUPUI to give them a peek at what’s to come if they pursue degrees after high school.

Cross was among the 1,000 Hancock County kindergartners who visited the university Friday morning as part of the Hancock County Promise program’s Walk into My Future event.

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The inaugural event is a key part of the county’s newly formed organization that aims to make college possible for every Hancock County student by helping their parents establish a CollegeChoice 529 Savings account. The program establishes free savings plans for local kindergarten students, with some seed money to get them started. As part of the program, Hancock County kindergarten teachers prepared lessons about college and careers for their students. The program’s capstone is a visit to a college campus.

Friday’s event, which brought kindergartners from every school in the county, including St. Michael School and the Geist Montessori Academy, to Indianapolis, engaged students in hands-on activities to teach them about college and potential careers. They had the opportunity to work and talk with college students, tour the campus and have a little fun playing games.

For many of her students, Friday was their first time visiting a college campus, said Christy Harpold, school social worker at J.B. Stephens Elementary. They spent the days leading up to the event talking about college and the kinds of jobs it can prepare you for, she said.

College is more than a decade away for these students, but their teachers want to start preparing them now and make sure they associate higher education with a fun experience, she said.

Leading up to the trip, Harpold took students on virtual tours of college campuses to give them an idea of what their visit would be like. And when they talked about dorm rooms, the youngsters could hardly entertain the thought of living away from Mom and Dad, Harpold said with a laugh.

Friday was the first time IUPUI hosted an event as large as Walk into My Future, though the school regularly hosts small groups of elementary students, said Jennifer Zotz, a recruitment coordinator for the campus. School representatives said they hope students will keep IUPUI — a short drive from home — in mind when the time comes to start applying for college.

Representatives from several departments were on hand to give students an idea of all the careers IUPUI can prepare them to pursue. The schools of science and business were present; the social work and engineering and technology departments were represented, too. Students made crafts, including bookmarks, talked about their dream jobs and burned off some energy playing with a parachute.

Mid day, they came together for a pep rally. Settled in stands at the stadium, kindergartners roared like jaguars and chanted for IUPUI as educators, and current IUPUI students talked about all the exciting things that happen at college.

The best part? Getting to eat ice cream before dinner, said Adie Lorsung, a 2015 New Palestine High School graduate who is now a junior at IUPUI.

Each of the students had a chance to take a short tour of the campus, visiting IUPUI’s Natatorium and the school’s library.

Fortville Elementary students were shocked to hear the library is home to more than 2 million books and that students are allowed to eat pizza there, said principal Stacy Muffler.

She hoped Friday’s event helped her students start thinking about their futures, and the Promise helps create dialogue among parents and students about college.

“This is where they’re going,” she said. “If it’s not on their radar, we want to put it there because they’re all capable.”

About The Promise

The Hancock County Promise aims to encourage kindergartners and their parents to start thinking about and saving for college now.

It has six steps:

1. Kindergarten parents sign up online for CollegeChoice 529 Direct Savings accounts at HancockCountyPromise.org.

2. Students receive a $25 contribution to their account from community partners: Hancock Health, Greenfield Banking Co., NineStar Connect, the EMS Group and Tyner Pond Farms.

3. All Hancock County kindergartners visit IUPUI to start dreaming of their futures.

4. Kindergartners receive their own piggy bank at school, and lessons at school focus on saving for their future.

5. Kindergartners find friends or family to donate at least $25 to their accounts.

6. Another $25 is deposited into their accounts by other community partners including the school foundations.

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.