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It will be years before they even graduate from high school, but thousands of Salinas sixth-grade students are already planning for college, thanks to a program at CSU Monterey Bay.

During the fall semester, youngsters from a dozen schools in the Salinas City Elementary School District visited campus. They promised to do their best in school, work hard, graduate from high school and pursue a college degree as part of the University Promise of CSU Monterey Bay.

In return, President Dianne Harrison promised that CSU Monterey Bay will save a spot for them if they complete high school and meet other basic requirements. She also promised that the university will work with the students and their parents to help arrange financial aid.

“We’re going to ask you to make a promise, a promise about your future,” she told the youngsters assembled in the University Center ballroom. “And we call it the University Promise of CSU Monterey Bay.

“Each and every one of you has the opportunity to get a college degree . . . we’re promising you we will help you and we will save a place for you, but it also takes a promise from you,” Dr. Harrison told the youngsters. “ . . . And if you make that promise, you will become a Junior Otter.”

Each student received a packet containing a poster that explains what they need to do to prepare for college on a year-by-year basis starting in the sixth grade; a certificate for them to sign acknowledging their promise to prepare for and attend college; information on the outreach and support programs available at CSUMB; and a letter to their parents explaining the event and asking them to frame and display the certificate.

And they received a Junior Otter card, with a space for their signature. The card reminds the students that they have pledged to prepare for, attend and graduate from college.

University students led the youngsters on a tour of campus, visiting the science building, the library and the student center.

Since the program began in the spring of 2009, hundreds of Salinas sixth-graders have visited campus each semester.

The program was developed by CSU Monterey Bay officials as a way to help youngsters recognize opportunities and make choices that they may not have known existed for them. It is also a way to help keep students motivated for success and away from gangs and other negative influences.

Each student received a Junior Otter card