New partnership helps at-risk students with college prep

UNF, Jacksonville Athletic League pair up to offer opportunities for youth

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Dozens of at-risk teens spent the day Wednesday at a local college exploring options for their future as part of a new partnership with the Jacksonville Athletic League's Teen Leadership Program and the University of North Florida.

The program, OspreyPAL, will help middle and high school students transition into college or the workforce. It will also offer scholarships.

"I grew up in a family where, especially males, they were all in jail. My dad just got out of jail,” 18-year-old Jacques Thomas said.

But Thomas is breaking the cycle. He'll be attending Florida State in the fall to study engineering.

Thomas and more than a dozen other students in the JaxPAL Teen Leadership Program got a hands-on experience at UNF, learning about robotics in the engineering department, and even doing science experiments in the lab.

"Many, before today, didn't even see college in their future, so for them to come here and really be inspired and want to do more and see their life past high school is really heartfelt,” PAL executive director Lakesha Burton said.

JaxPAL connects at-risk students with local officers to build relationships through after-school programs and mentorship. It's now partnering with UNF to add college prep, campus tours and other academic engagement to its program.

As part of the new partnership, UNF will be choosing four students every year in the program to award up to $16,000 to attend its university. The award would be broken up over four years.

Along with the support of local officers, Thomas says this program will help other first-generation college students like him succeed after high school.

"Just talking to them, it lets me know what I'm getting into and the hard work I'm about to put in,” Thomas said. "I know it's going to make my mom so proud, because nothing's going to stop me."

OspreyPAL scholarship recipients will also give back, serving as a mentor and ambassador for the JaxPAL Teen Leadership Program.