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REALITY U: GBMS 8th graders learn realities of adulthood

When it came time for a young couple to purchase a couple of vehicles, their first choices were a Tesla and a Ford Raptor. But after paying for their utilities, child-care costs and an unexpected bill for a trip to the emergency room, they had to trade the Tesla for something cheaper.

“Why does everything have to be so expensive?” the Tesla buyer asked.

He was one of 240 eighth graders at Great Bend Middle School who attended Reality U – an educational simulation of their future lives. The students imagined they were 26 years old, with jobs and bills to pay. Some were married, some had children, and some had student loans to pay off.

The scenarios weren’t entirely random. Prior to the simulation, students filled out surveys about where they see themselves in the future. Their grade-point average was also part of the equation, and those with better grades started the simulation with higher-paying jobs.

The simulation took place in the gym, where 12 booths were set up to represent different services or purchases that adults typically have to budget for each month. Armed with a scorecard that doubled as a checkbook, students had to visit each booth and maintain a positive balance.

United Way of Central Kansas is the major sponsor for this annual event (canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19) and lines up a long list of community underwriters and volunteers. The creators of Reality U say the event actively engages students to help them understand how their performance in school today impacts their future. It also provides the community an opportunity to share in local students’ learning and developing an understanding of the world of work. 

UWCK Executive Director Gaila Demel commented on the simulation. “Every single booth gives them a lesson about reality,” she said. “You can’t have the Tesla if you can’t afford it.”

After each group finished the Reality U simulation, GBHS Counselor Sheryl Neeland followed up with questions about what they learned and what surprised them most. Comments from eighth graders included:

“Child care is very expensive,” one said.

“Putting money in a 401K will make you richer later.”

“Don’t buy a Porsche for your first purchase.”

“If I invest in a 401K I can have $1.1 million when I retire.”

A girl who was married in the simulation learned about compromising with her spouse, while a single mom said she had to have someone else buy her a used car.

“Your parents do this every month,” Neeland told the students “They only have so much money; there’s a lot of things they do for you.”

Students also said they enjoyed Reality U.

“It was fun,” said one eighth-grader. Another added, “I had a great time today.”

Those who were waiting their turn to go through Reality U attended breakout sessions on related topics, such choosing future careers that fit their personality types. These sessions, like Reality U, focused on the message that the choices students make will have an impact.

Before a new group entered the Reality U simulation, volunteers gathered up the programmable babies (which will cry if they need attention), sanitized all of the surfaces and had the students stop at the hand sanitizing station.

Reality U for others

GBHS Counselor Brian Williams said that in previous years, students from Holy Family School and Central Kansas Christian Academy also joined Reality U, but that didn’t happen this year. He also said sponsors talked about finding a way for high school freshmen to experience the simulation, since it was canceled last year, but their diverse scheduling made that impossible.

Demel said Realty U will be shared with other eighth-graders in Barton County. “On Jan. 26 we will bring it to Hoisington Middle School for other schools in Barton County.” Patrick Sehl Jr., director of Reality U at The Pando Initiative, which is based in Wichita, plans to attend.