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Ninth graders from Notasulga fill a room on the second floor of the Melton Student Center, working together in small groups to put together various Auburn-themed puzzles. One student, Jayla Jackson, snaps photos of the action with her personal camera. It’s not her first visit to Auburn University, but it’s the first of four campus visits she will take with her class throughout her high school career thanks to Learners Exploring Academic Dreams, or LEAD, a program hosted by the College of Education’s Truman Pierce Institute.

“I like that we get to express our creativity in different activities throughout the day,” said Jackson. “I want to go to Savannah College of Art and Design and eventually become an art teacher.”

LEAD aims to help students identify their goals and put a plan in motion to achieve them with a focus on college and career readiness. Throughout the year, the Truman Pierce Institute, or TPI, hosts eight LEAD days, one for each high school grade level at both Notasulga High School and Loachapoka High School.

Each LEAD day is designed to build on the previous one, creating a transitional program that helps students prepare for their future. For example, the ninth grade LEAD day may introduce students to different career options through campus tours and activities, and then the tenth grade LEAD day may focus on resume building, with the hope that by the time the students have attended all four LEAD days they have all the tools necessary to take the next step in their academic or professional career.

“We approach the program with the ideas of equitable outreach, empowerment and exploration,” said Jason C. Bryant, associate clinical professor in educational leadership and director of the Truman Pierce Institute. “We have seven areas of focus, including college and career readiness, leadership skills and life skills, and we build on these, so ideally, if they started in ninth grade, then they would be with us for all four years of high school.”

Over the years, various programs and colleges on campus have taken part in LEAD days, including the College of Nursing, ROTC, the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, the College of Agriculture, and the College of Human Sciences’ culinary science program.

While recruiting students to Auburn University is an indirect outcome of the program, Bryant says the main goal is to stay connected with the students and usher them through high school graduation and into the next phase of their life, whether that is at Auburn or another school.

That connection has remained strong for Will Brown, a graduate of Loachapoka High School who attended various LEAD programs throughout his high school career and ultimately matriculated into Auburn. TPI offered him a position as a student worker, and after graduation he stayed on as a temporary employee to continue assisting with LEAD.

For Brown, LEAD impacted the trajectory of his life and opened his eyes to some of the opportunities he could take advantage of, and he is determined to make sure other students have this experience.

“It all goes back to our initial vision and mission,” said Brown. “The students need to see something that doesn't look familiar to them, but most importantly, they need to be empowered enough to say, ‘Hey, I can attend. I can do this. This doesn't look like what I am familiar with. But I know I can excel here.’” 

LEAD is a self-funded project from TPI, so donations help maintain the program and support life-changing experiences like LEAD days for high school students in the Auburn area. To learn more, please visit the Truman Pierce Institute webpage or, to make a gift to TPI, visit the College of Education’s giving page and enter “Truman Pierce Institute” after selecting, “I’d like to search for a different option.”