Summer Programs Change Lives

    Posted by Alexander Phillips on Apr 16, 2015 3:58:14 PM

    In Pre-College

    Reflections from the Founding Director of Summer Programs

    I began working with summer programs for high school students over 10 years ago, when I co-founded the Juniper Institute for Young Writers here at UMass Amherst. We already had a successful and robust program for adult writers, and realized there was an exciting opportunity to share the same workshops, craft sessions, and readings with young writers, too. Years later, and the Young Writers program is still going, and stronger than ever.

    It shouldn't surprise anyone that there are lots of enthusiastic and talented young people who are ready for advanced study in an area of passion. We offer a wide range of programs in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields. One reason our summer students excel is that they are passionate about the work they are doing here on campus.

    What may not be as obvious is the effect summer programs can have on students who are unsure of what fields interest them. More and more, universities and colleges are requiring incoming students to select a major before they even arrive on campus. This strategy improves time to degree, and works well for students who have found their niche. Others may need the chance to explore several topics before having a clear idea of what direction they want to go in.

    I also founded a program called the Summer Institute in Leadership and Sustainability. Several years ago, a high school student from central Massachusetts was very obviously compelled to join the program by her father, who is a professor at another UMass campus. This student was not thrilled to be spending two weeks learning about alternative energy, carbon emissions, and trash. She said she cared about the environment, but that only went so far.

    As the two weeks progressed, I noticed a change in her attitude. She was regularly becoming the first one to class, and was eager (more like totally pumped!) to participate in discussions and activities. As part of the program, she designed an impressive community sustainability project that she implemented at her own high school when she returned. A few days after the program was over, her father called me and said, "She wouldn't stop talking about saving the planet. I have never seen her so excited about something. She barely talked on the way to Amherst. What happened to her out there?" He thanked me and told me she was actually researching colleges that were strong in sustainability studies without any prompting from him.

    I've seen this happen many times. Students in summer programs grow intellectually and socially in such a short time. Summer programs really are powerful, and I am lucky to be a part of them.

    -Alex Phillips, MFA


    If you do decide to attend a summer program, here are some things to think about:

    • Consider taking courses in several different areas of interest to help you home in on things you really love.
    • Try to be social while you are in your program, even if it doesn't come easy to you. You will make contacts that will last a lifetime.
    • Use the opportunity to learn what living on a college campus is like. Visit the admissions office. Take a campus tour.
    • Be sure to call your parents all the time. (Ok, just enough so they don't worry.)
    • Ask your instructors if they would be willing to write letters of recommendation for you to use when applying to college.
    • Once you have completed your program, think about using the experience as the foundation of your college admissions essay. Colleges like to hear that you are motivated by your own passion toward a topic, rather than just going through the motions.