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Can a college fair change the earth?

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Alexander Wallace, 15, attends Douglass High School. In 2016, he plans to walk across the stage as a high school graduate.

So why was he walking around the Pipkin Building on Saturday (Sept. 14) afternoon?

"I've always dreamed about and always have been pretty intent about what I'm going to be in the future," said Wallace. "I want to be something in this world. Some people take the African Americans for granted and I just want to change the face of the earth and things like that."

The 4th Annual Southern Heritage Classic College Fair drew Wallace and hundreds of others to the Tiger Lane venue near Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. And while it wasn't stamped on any visible banner, nor shouted out from the stage, the event unfolded amid a burgeoning recognition that Memphis' prospects for a more prosperous future is interwoven with the need to increase its college-educated citizenry in a big way.

Wallace, whose siblings include one who is a student at the University of Memphis, is determined to be counted in that number.

"I go to the different colleges (at the Classic College Fair) to look and see all they have to offer so I can plan out my future," he said. "The people have been pretty nice."

As Wallace pivoted to continue his fact-finding mission, he crossed the path of Mildred Woodard, who was at the event with her son, Jared, a ninth grader at Central High School.

"We just moved here from North Carolina two weeks ago and we heard about the college fair," said Woodard. "We came out to get a feel of what the colleges have and what type of academics they offer, looking for scholarships and stuff that he can build his grades up toward."

Woodard, a single mother, put a premium on the financial aid information.

"With the economy the way it is, you have to find different resources that will help you and your child further their education," she said.

That also means keeping up with changes in the rules that govern financial aid eligibility, including credit requirement adjustments to the PLUS program that provides federal loans that graduate students and parents of dependent undergraduate students can use to help pay for college or career school.

"I've dealt with the PLUS program before with my older children and I found it to be beneficial," said Woodard, the mother of six. "They did give me money and help me out. I am a single parent trying to get my kids through school."

Woodard lamented "so much red tape" that parents have to go through lately to get resources their children will need to continue on in school. Harking back specifically to the PLUS program, she said not having that as an option would make it "very difficult."

The Classic College Fair is sponsored by the city's Office of Youth Services, with James E. Nelson, special assistant to the mayor, on point Saturday. Although primarily for high school students, the College Fair also is designed for students of all ages who are interested in returning to college.

Amid college representatives from George, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi were representatives of the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, which administers federal and state assistance programs.

"Tennessee Student Assistance is here telling parents that 'these are things that you need to do and get in place,'" Nelson said.

The Memphis Ambassadors program is the flagship program for the Office of Youth Services. Exposing students and parents to information they need, including testing and financial aid, is part of the task, said Nelson.

"Yes, that (changes to the PLUS loan program) does come up, but for us, we have to focus on making sure that whatever the rules are, that our students get it. Hey, I can't change the rules for you.

"We can vote individuals out of office that make the rule changes, but ultimately it is our responsibility to help them deal with whatever the circumstances are," said Nelson. "You got to have a 3.0, 3.5, hey you got to get it, get your grind on and do what you supposed to do today."

That goes for the parents too, he stressed.

"You can't be afraid to ... report how much money you make. You've got to get your business in order if you want to be able to send your child to school," said Nelson.

"Most schools are costing $20,000 and more every year ... but there are opportunities out there, as there have always been. If you have a will and a desire, it will happen."

No long after, Mayor AC Wharton Jr. addressed an assembly of attendees, beating a similar drum.

"We do care about our youth," he said. "If you show what you want to do, somebody is going to give you a hand. ... We want you to keep going, whether it's cosmetology ... keep going. ... We are going to do our part, but you have got to do your part."

Wharton was the "set-up man" for actor Laz Alonso, whose appearance sent a sustained roar through the building. Alonso made the point that he was not unlike many of them.

"Just like I'm standing five or 10 feet from you, my life, my career, my income potential ... you can do the same thing," he said. "It doesn't mean that you have to be an actor."

Follow your heart, Alonso said, and put God first.

"All the people that say, 'you can't do it, you can't do it,' what they mean is they can't do it. Don't ever let nobody speak for you; not me and not a naysayer."

Expect the bigger and better, he said, offering this economics lesson:

"Be smart. If you make $5 and spend $5, what do you have?"

"Nothing," was the collective answer screamed back.

"If you make a million dollars and you spend a million dollars, what do you have?"

"Nothing!"

"Exactly. You're still broke," said Alonso, extolling the virtue of stashing away the majority of what they will earn.

Start on your dreams now, Alonso said.

"Up to the age of 25, the world will judge you on your potential. Right now, y'all have a lot of potential ... all the potential in the world. After the age of 25, they are going to judge you on your results. What have you accomplished? What have you done? OK, you got potential, you smart, but what have you done?"

Alonso gave them a job on the spot.

"Start looking for what you love and I guarantee you that there is a way to make it a business," he said, "to make income from it, because when you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. I love acting...to me it's not work. I'm doing what God put me on this earth to do."

And through his work, he said, "I get to talk to you...If I can inspire one person in this room to pursue your dream, I've done my job and I pray to God I have inspired all of you. ...

"Are y'all ready to pursue your dreams? Are y'all going to let everybody know that (as) black men and black women we are here to make things happen and to own our own businesses and to support each other and not hate on each other?"

The screams said the students were on board.

It was as if Alonso had asked, "Are you ready to change the earth?"