by Justin Vick

MOORESVILLE – As dozens of students bounced from booth to booth, collecting career and college brochures, Jalen Clark stood still for several minutes studying an Elon University pamphlet.

Jalen is in no rush to pick a college. After all, he’s only in the eighth grade, but the Mooresville Middle School student has been thinking a lot about his future lately.

“I was thinking about it a little bit last year, but it just kicked in a lot this year, knowing that I’m going to have to buckle down,” Jalen said. “Colleges look at every single year of high school.”

Jalen was among several students attending Mooresville Graded School District’s second annual Economic Summit on March 31 at the Charles Mack Citizen Center. The event let students talk directly to 80 vendors, split among colleges and local businesses, about how to prepare for their futures.

“The focus has been on telling students to stay in school and let them know about the opportunities that are available,” said Kirk Ballard, an Allen Tate Real Estate agent.

Ballard also serves as a member of the Mooresville Graded School District’s Career Education Advisory Council, the group of business leaders that organized the event and helps students taking career and technical education courses pay for certifications and licenses.

“Mooresville does such a great job as a school system lowering the dropout rate and increasing the graduation rate, and that started with the laptop initiative,” Ballard said. “Those computer skills are vital to any job you have today.”

Michelle Weaver-Edwards was pleased with the Economic Summit, noting how officials emphasized the importance of thinking about college well before they become high school seniors.

But what was most useful for her daughter, Mirelle, a junior at Lake Norman High School, was how students shouldn’t discount a college because it costs a lot. Financial aid is available.

“They told them go for it,” Weaver-Edwards said.

And if students are not able to get into their first or second choice or if their finances prevent them from attending a university, Pat Cannon encourages them to consider community college.

“We just want to make ourselves a viable option and make sure students go somewhere,” said Cannon, a recruiter with Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

Community colleges don’t compete but complement each other, Cannon said, so if a program isn’t offered at Mitchell Community College, it could be available at Rowan-Cabarrus or Central Piedmont.

“We want to let kids know that going to college is not an impossible feat,” added Mountain State University recruiter Maggie Walkup. “Our mantra is we make education assessable to everyone.”

Part of that involves walking students through the financial aid process and encouraging them to stay connected with advisors and counselors.

Several of the recruiters said they’ve grown accustomed to promoting higher education options to younger students. Many high schools offer freshman academies or enrichment courses that help rising ninth-graders better transition from middle school, Cannon said.

“Really, the message is start thinking about what you’re going to do after high school,” said Ashley Gastel, a recruiter with ITT Technical Institute in Charlotte. “It’s right around the corner.”