Summer camps give kids a taste of college life, careers

| Monday, March 17, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Christopher Gonzalez Jr. may only be 14, but he knows he wants to become a neurologist or orthopedic surgeon someday. This summer, he will get an early taste of the higher education it will take to achieve his goal.

The Sewickley Academy freshman is going overseas in June to participate in the monthlong “Reach Cambridge” summer-camp program at the prestigious University of Cambridge in England. He will stay in a dorm, just like a college student, and take courses in life sciences and medicine.

“I'm very excited to go there,” Christopher says. “It's really going to be a remarkable experience to actually go to that university — to actually go there and study. It will help me in college to understand everything.”

His father, Christopher Gonzales, is equally excited about his son's international adventure. He says it will prepare his son for the college experience a few years ahead of time.

“It's so amazing,” Gonzales says. “It's a great honor to be a part of that whole experience from a dad's standpoint. ... I think it will mature him.”

Summer sleepaway camp for teens isn't necessarily cabins, woods and archery. Many colleges offer immersive academic “camp” programs, where teenagers usually live on campus for several days to several weeks, and spend time studying a topic. College summer programs provide constant adult chaperones, some of whom are college students. Some are day camps where kids go home in the evening, but many provide dorm housing for programs that may last from a few nights to several weeks.

Although some programs provide the student with college credit, many do not. The main benefit is tasting college life in a safe, supervised setting, which thrills most teens, who feel more mature just by being at a college campus, observers and educators say.

College summer camps, which have become popular over the past 15 years, offer high-school students an opportunity to learn and grow, and it can give them a strong plug on their resumes when they later apply to colleges, say two educational consultants with College Bound, based in Potomac, Md.

Chloe Rothstein and Jodi Siegel say these programs can especially benefit kids thinking of going into a specialized academic program like engineering and arts, because they can get exposure and experience they wouldn't get in high school and potentially save themselves from choosing the wrong major. These days, when college can cost up to $50,000 a year or so, spending extra time to change majors is a luxury many can't afford — though summer camps also can be pricey, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

“It's better to explore (a subject) for a week in high school than be a year or two into college and discover it's not for you,” says Siegel, who formerly worked in undergraduate admissions at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Colleges benefit because hosting the teens can become a good recruiting tool, as many attendees might apply to the same school and possibly get a letter of recommendation from a professor they knew. Kids who attend the camps can write about their experiences in their application essays, Rothstein says.

“You can point to academic interests and why the school would be a good fit,” says Rothstein, who worked in undergraduate admissions at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “You can write a much more nuanced and convincing essay.”

Tessa Swiger, 21, of Greensburg, found her future college when she attended Seton Hill University's “Winds 'n Jazz in June” program as a teenager, two years in a row. She now is a junior in music therapy at the Greensburg school. At the weeklong summer program, she learned about music technology and tried different instruments.

“It was really interesting because I got to meet a few of the professors I have now,” Swiger says. “Within that one week, my musicianship was just so much better.”

Being on a college campus and living in a dorm was exciting, Swiger says, and it gave her an edge when she entered Seton Hill as a student a few years later.

“I knew the place like the back of my hand when I went,” she says. “It made the transition into college so much easier.”

“What I've seen from our system is (students) are seeing (college) is possible for them,” says Michelle Walters, director of the community arts program at Seton Hill. “It's a place that feels comfortable, and it's not scary at all. The professors are friendly and want to help. (Kids) just feel comfortable on the campus, learning where everything is.”

The University of Pittsburgh in Oakland offers many summer programs, typically lasting from four to eight weeks. One example is the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Summer Academy, a highly competitive program that puts 60 high schoolers from around the country to work in research facilities, learning about the health-care industry and careers.

“It lets the students begin to test what is the right fit for their interests and abilities,” says Joan M. Lakowski, assistant vice chancellor for science-education outreach in health sciences. “It exposes them to other peers who are motivated and excited about learning.”

Students who attend a Pitt camp can get reference letters from a faculty member that will help them stand out as motivated and thoughtful in their college applications, says Lakowski, a professor of pharmacology and chemical biology.

Another camp Pitt offers is the Health Career Scholars Academy, a monthlong program where students live in the dorms and explore health careers.

“It's an incredibly dynamic and interactive experience exploring different careers in heath-science professions,” Lakowski says. Some kids want to be doctors and others want to be nurses, pharmacists or other professionals.

“What we're very excited about is the interest,” Lakowski says, “and the number of applications the program directors are receiving is just phenomenal.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

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