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October 1, 2014

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Expedition into history

What: Unity Through Knowledge Black College Tour

When: April 4-9

Where: Touring Clark-Atlanta, Morehouse, Spelman, Morris Brown, Alabama State, Tuskegee, Florida A&M and Georgia Tech colleges and universities.

Cost: $700, includes airfare, hotels, ground transportation, tours and seminars.

Registration: By Nov. 1.

More info: Call the Rev. Kelcey West, 399-6443 or visit 32ndst.us.

While most people think spring break is a time to party, the Rev. Kelcey West sees it as an opportunity for something he finds far more important: educating young blacks about the importance of attending college.

West is set to hold the ninth annual Unity Through Knowledge Black College Tour April 4-9, during the Clark County School District's 2004 spring break. The five-day, four-night tour will visit the historical black colleges of Clark-Atlanta, Morehouse, Spelman, Morris Brown, Alabama State, Tuskegee, Florida A&M University and Georgia Tech.

The tour, which this year goes through Georgia, Alabama and Florida, has set the standard in black college tours by consistently creating new and improved programs, West said. He conducts three tours, covering different states, and rotates them every three years.

The goal is to get more young black students to think about going to college, West said.

"Enrollment of blacks in college has increased a lot in past years," he said. "My goal is to continue the trend."

A study released this week underscores West's purpose. The National Center for Education Statistics, a division of U.S. Education Department, said in a report released Wednesday that more young black people are choosing college.

In 2000, the report said, 31 percent of 18- to 24-year-old blacks were enrolled in colleges and universities, up from 19 percent in 1980.

This is the kind of news that keeps West adamant in making every effort to educate students about all areas of college life.

West said the tour provides a complete college atmosphere, with dormitory-style housing, opportunities for students to explore and understand travel etiquette, self-responsibility and money management through a nonstop itinerary. The idea is to introduce students to different atmospheres to let them get a glimpse of everyday college life.

A native of Michigan, West chose to attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas without visiting the campus. After experiencing culture shock, he realized the importance of getting a feel for campus life beforehand.

"Moving from Michigan to Las Vegas was complete culture shock to me," he said. "It took years for me to adapt to life in Las Vegas. Because of this, I wanted to help college students tour universities before making the same commitment."

West said the tour is not necessarily trying to promote the schools on the list but rather to promote universities in general. Increasing the college enrollment of black men is also a key focus for West.

Wednesday's report stated that women make up 63 percent of the black enrollment in colleges and universities in 2000, with male enrollment at 37 percent. That ratio was greater than for other ethnic groups, the report said, a trend West has noticed.

"The majority of students on our tour have been female. I'd say at least 75 percent. African-American females are currently more aggressive than men in their want to attain a higher education. This is highly reflected on campuses," West said.

West said his goal is to get more young men involved, to reduce that ratio to 60-40.

This year West has reserved 85 seats, a 34-seat increase since he founded the program in 1994. West attributes its popularity to word-of-mouth advertising.

Christopher Scott, 15, attended the tour last year and is spreading the word.

"I would definitely tell people to go, I already told a bunch of my friends," he said. "I've gotten a few to come."

Scott said that visiting different campuses gave him a feel for what college would be like.

"I learned a lot more about what they do at college and how people act there," he said. "It looked like a huge high school to me."

Through the tour, Scott was able to distinguish his likes and dislikes about each university he visited.

"I liked Hampton the best," he said. "The only thing is that it was too cold there."

While these observations seem minuscule, West said these are important factors in deciding which school would fit each student.

In addition to exploring colleges in the Southeast, students will also have the opportunity to visit historical landmarks such as the Dr. Martin Luther King Center, The Civil Rights Memorial and the FAMU African-American Museum.

Visiting the King Center is always a highlight, West said.

"At the Dr. King Center students are able to visit the grave, the museum and a plethora of artifacts from his life," he said. "We also visit King's birth home and Ebenezer & Dexter Baptist Church, where he was pastor."

Leon Davis, 19, has attended the Unity Through Knowledge tour for the past four years. He's been on tours that took him through Virginia and Washington, D.C., and through Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as the current Southeast tour. Learning more about out-of-state areas has kept him coming back.

"Being in one spot, you never get to enhance your views and see outside Las Vegas," Davis said. "In the past four years I've gotten to see the Southeast, Florida, Washington and Maryland."

He has his favorite spots.

"I was able to get a feel for Morehouse University, my favorite, in Atlanta," he said. "I liked that school, applied there and ended up getting in."

Davis said Atlanta was full of amazing sites.

"There are a lot of historical places in Atlanta," he said. "Dr. King Center, the grave site, the fire that never goes out. Those were all very moving places for me."

West launched the tour as a fund-raiser for the 32nd Street Theater, his nonprofit theater company and community group, but now says he considers it a necessity.

"After the first tour I really tapped into the need for this tour and a need for it within our community," West said.

Instead of using the tour as a means for fund raising, West now sees the outcome in the students' lives as his greatest reward.

"Our reward comes from visiting a campus and running into a former student who had attended the tour in the previous years," West said. "Last year at Howard University, we had lunch with three former (Clark County School District) students. That really made me feel my work was not in vain."

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