Mateo Arce is only 14 years old, yet in the course of several hours Friday, he graduated from high school with honors, obtained his bachelor's degree from a four-year college and went to graduate school on a full scholarship.
"Congratulations," said a college representative, handing him his diploma. "Good luck in your career."
Mateo, who wants to be a state trooper some day, was one of some 60 eighth graders from Holyoke's Peck Middle School who were on the Holyoke Community College campus Friday to take part in a "high school to college simulation" exercise conducted by STEP, HCC's Skills, Training and Enrichment program.
STEP is an after-school and mentoring program for students in Holyoke's four public middle schools. STEP also conducts supplemental activities for the students, such as the annual high school to college simulation.
The Peck students started the day with a blank green sheet, their "resume," on which they wrote their real school grades. During the first part of the morning, they could elect to participate in activities or visit support services that could improve their grades and college prospects, such as tutoring, community service, extracurriculars, guidance and athletics.
"In a short time, they go through the motions of high school to get a feel for how it works," said Jose Pedraza, 20, a Holyoke resident and former STEP student who will graduate from HCC June 1 with a degree in graphic design. "For example, if they start with a low math grade they can go to tutoring and raise their grade."
At the Community Service table, students could choose between writing a letter for change, cleaning up the environment or feeding the hungry.
"They have to make a sandwich" - peanut butter and jelly - "for someone who hasn't had a sandwich and wants one, so you know they are actually hungry," said Megan Harding, community school manager at Peck Middle School.
At the Athletics table, students had to perform some kind of physical exercise, depending on the sport they were interested in, such as throw a ball 10 times (baseball), do 10 pushups (basketball) or hold their breath for 20 seconds (swimming).
They could take a simulated 10-question SAT or spend their entire morning in a curtained off electronic gaming zone called the "distraction room" equipped with two Macintosh computers and a Wii gaming system.
"Any time they go in there, we show them how spending too much time playing games can affect their grades," said Pedraza, one of a handful of former STEP and HCC students helping out during the event, which was held in the Kittredge Center for Business and Workforce Development.
Pedraza said he went through the STEP simulation when he was in seventh grade. His mother was there and wouldn't let him in the distraction room. A good lesson -- he'll be transferring to Westfield State University to pursue his bachelor's degree..
"The simulation showed me getting involved with things definitely helps," Pedraza said. "It motivates you to get more involved in school."
STEP staff assistant Jeff Mackler said the simulation was started because there was a disconnect between the college and career goals of students and the academic classes and activities they were taking in high school. For instance, a student who hates science and didn't take the right classes in high school might want to work with animals and be a veterinarian.
"The idea is to help them make decisions in high school so they're ready to go to college," Mackler said.
After students progressed through each of their four high school years, they could choose to go on to college and a career, their college choices ,financial aid eligibility and career paths either restricted or enhanced by their performance in high school.
Arce said the simulation was helpful.
"I have a better outlook on what I'm going to do when I get older," he said.
Photos: (Left) Peck Middle School student Mateo Arce gets his simulated college diploma. (Right) HCC student Jose Pedraza helps out in the distraction room.