Long before 60 sixth grade students descended onto the University of Utah campus last Wednesday, Jennifer Bodell had an idea.

“I’m a brand new principal, so brand new principals, we kind of think outside of the box,” said Bodell, the principal at Whittier Elementary School in West Valley City. “I was thinking about our sixth graders and sending them off to junior high and what we could do at the very end of the school year to make it something memorable that they’ll never forget.”

Bodell’s goal, as an elementary school leader, is to usher students into middle and high school with the ultimate goal of moving on to pursue some form of higher education.

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Instead of having a typical career day where parents come to the school and talk about their professions, Bodell had every sixth grader write an essay about their dream job. She then had a meeting at the University of Utah community engagement office, where she pitched her idea.

“I told them what my dream was — to let kids engage in some careers that they want to do — to inspire them,” Bodell said. “All of a sudden, we’re teamed up and I’m on a Zoom call with professors in medicine, at the law school and athletics, and we’re coming up with these incredible ideas that all of the sixth graders can come up here, and from their essays that they wrote, we assigned them to go to one of the areas.”

And that’s how “Imagine U. Day” was born, bringing students to campus to illustrate that post-secondary education is obtainable when students follow their dreams.

The various careers that students were able to explore included:

S.J. Quinney College of Law: Students interested in the legal field got to play the role of attorneys, judges and jurors during a mock trial where their teachers and parent volunteers served as witnesses. After the mock trial concluded, students participated in a mediation activity, showcasing one of the common alternatives to trial.

Science in the parks: Students experienced hands-on activities including an activity with microscopes, building stable structures, a stethoscope activity and finally, a demonstration of “elephant toothpaste.”

Fine arts: This interactive media and hands-on theater workshop gave students the opportunity to create and bring stories to life through visual media and technology.

University public safety: Students explored the U.’s Public Safety Building where they met staff, dispatchers, detectives, K-9s and several on-duty campus police officers. They were able to tour the dispatch center, detective unit, glance into the evidence room and experience K-9 sniff demonstrations and interact with K-9 officers.

School of medicine: Students visited a medical simulation lab located at the U.’s College of Nursing. They had three stations to visit that included a Q&A session with doctors, an activity with mannequins (CPR, intubation, checking vitals) and using ultrasound probes to look at heart, vein and organ functions.

Athletics: Students visited several U. athletics facilities, including soccer, basketball and strength and conditioning. At each facility, they engaged in sports activities and interacted with university student-athletes.

Whittier Elementary sixth grade student Layney Spencer checks the temperature of her classmate Emiry Ozmore while visiting the University of Utah College of Nursing for Imagine U. Day in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Although this year was seen as a pilot year for the program, “Imagine U. Day” is a multi-year initiative that aims to facilitate engagement and build lasting partnerships with principals, parents and students at community schools near the newly proposed University of Utah Health medical care campus in West Valley City.

“Our demographics (are) 40% Latino (or) Hispanic and a lot of them haven’t even been on a college campus before,” Bodell said. “We talk about all the time, ‘graduate and go to college.’ These kids haven’t ever even been on a college campus — why would they maybe even care?”

Dr. Smitha Warrier, associate professor of anesthesiology at the U., was on hand to walk students through medical demonstrations and answer any questions they had.

Along with Bodell, Warrier said that the experiential, hands-on learning offered through “Imagine U. Day” is a great chance for students to explore career fields that interest them.

“I’ve had some kids here today where I would probably just take them to med school right now. They’ve had such engaging thoughts and questions,” Warrier said.

Additionally, the program shows students that their goals are attainable.

“To inspire them, but also to show them that this is tangible and available to them and I think we have such an amazing campus here to provide all those experiences, whether it’s law or athletics or higher ed in general,” Warrier said. “We have a ton of spaces at the U. that we can hopefully help inspire these kids to see that they can work in these spaces.”

The students seemed to be enjoying the program, too.

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Jade Chapman, a sixth grader at Whittier Elementary, was put in the group that visited the school of medicine. She said that the biggest thing she learned was “how to hold a baby.”

“We’ve learned all the medical things — this has been super cool,” Chapman said.

Both Bodell and U. spokesman Shawn Wood said that they hope to expand “Imagine U. Day” to more West Valley schools and more U. departments in the coming years.

“Hopefully it just leaves a really good core memory for them to help them in the future,” Bodell said.

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