Visit to Fort Hays State campus a thrill for Colorado third-graders

Burlington elem students

By Diane Gasper-O'Brien
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. -- Devon Slack says he knows where he is going to college when he graduates from high school.

It took just one visit to Fort Hays State University's campus to impress the youngster from Burlington, Colo.

While Devon's arrival on campus as a student would be a few years -- he is a third-grader on schedule to enter college in fall 2026 -- the students' enthusiasm for learning during the field trip to Hays was exactly what John Fitchen was looking for when he scheduled a visit to FHSU for his school's third-graders last week.

"I believe education is good for many students who don't know it yet," said Fitchen, one of three third-grade teachers at Burlington Elementary School.

Fitchen, who has arranged several unique field trips in his five-plus years in Burlington, wanted to expose his students to a university campus at a young age.

FHSU was his destination of choice for several reasons.

"Hays is a safe space to take third-graders," Fitchen said. "Fort Hays State is very affordable, it's a great school, and it's small enough and safe enough space where kids from rural areas can feel comfortable.

"It's relatively close to us," he continued, "and it's a school that Burlington has many good connections to."

One of those connections works closely with Fitchen every day.

Rachael Brachtenbach, one of the third-grade teachers at Burlington who is in her second year of teaching, is a 2015 graduate of FHSU.

"I came here on a visit and fell in love with it," said Brachtenbach, a native of Stratton, Colo., who graduated with an elementary education degree. "I graduated (from high school) in a class of 16, and this was the small-town atmosphere I was looking for."

Now, Brachtenbach is more than happy to "show them my alma mater."

Another 2015 alum agreed that Fort Hays State was the right destination of choice for her.

"It's affordable, comfortable and close to home," said Amber Ruggels, who grew up in Russell and transferred to FHSU from Hutchinson Community College because she liked the tourism and hospitality program.

"This is a great school," said Ruggels, now an admissions counselor at FHSU who helped show the students around campus.

The group of 40-some students, teachers and several parents split up into small groups and visited Forsyth Library, a science lab and the observatory in Albertson Hall, sat in on choir practice and checked out residential hall living.

When asked what his favorite part of the day was, Devon replied emphatically, "Everything!"

"I'm coming here when I graduate," added Devon, a student in Brachtenbach's class.

Classmate Jovany Lopez echoed that sentiment.

"This is where I'm going to college," Jovany said.

Jessi Fisher, mother of Hayden Fisher -- one of Fitchen's students -- said Burlington is lucky to have forward-thinking staff such as her son's teacher.

"He is so awesome," Fisher said of Fitchen, in his fifth year at Burlington. "He gets them out in the community and does a lot of field trips. He is such an out-of-the-box thinker."

Fitchen said the visit to Fort Hays State was a way of bottling the enthusiasm the youngsters have for learning now, something that can tend to wane in high school.

"Sometimes by the time students reach high school, they have made up their mind they aren't going to college," Fitchen said. "To them, college might be four years of math. So we want to open their eyes to the university and that science and math, and college in general, can be fun."

"They see me having fun, they see me still interested in learning," added Fitchen, who has a Ph.D. in genetics but decided to go back to school and get credentials to teach. "It rubs off."

"This trip has had a big impact on them. I've heard so many of them say they're going to school here," Brachtenbach said. "I am so proud."

While those thoughts can change over the years, Fitchen believes in impacting students with learning opportunities at a young age, and he thinks "there's a really good chance you'll get one or two of these kids here in school in nine years."

If Devon Slack has his way, he will be one of them.

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