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Home Education Magazine

An Early Dip into College Life - Joanne Yeck

Choosing a college can be exciting, confusing and overwhelming. Even more so for a homeschooler whose first test might very well be the SAT, and whose initial classroom experience is on a university campus.

Visiting a college as a prospective student, complete with sitting in on a class or two, sampling dining hall cuisine, and spending a night in a dorm, is great for an initial picture of college life, but a growing number of colleges and universities have realized that, at today's prices, it pays to take a college for a test drive and have created summer programs so high schoolers can "try before you buy."

Across the county, dozens of colleges and universities provide summer samplers featuring some of their best professors and showing off their facilities. For high schoolers who want a longer campus experience, there are a number of one-, two-, four-, even six-week- long summer programs, offering a taste of college--complete with dorm living, dining hall food and midnight gab sessions.

While some universities simply offer early matriculation for the academically gifted, integrating high schoolers in standard summer school classes, others (especially small liberal arts colleges) give special attention to teens. Course work is custom-designed for high schoolers, while guaranteeing college content. These summer programs are a wonderful way to "try on" college life, particularly at a school you are seriously considering. An acid test: Are you ready to live away from home? Are you ready for the rigors of college?

Our homeschooling family discovered this early college phenomena while searching for intensive summer language programs, and Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, provided us with a tailor-made solution. Earlham was close to home (a little over an hour away, making it easy to visit the campus before applying), and the school's long-established relationship with Japan made it a perfect fit for our daughter's academic goal--two weeks of "intensive Japanese."

Founded by Quakers in 1847, Earlham is an outstanding small liberal arts college. And the egalitarianism of the Quaker tradition (students immediately call professors by their first names, for example) was a great match for our autodidactic daughter.

Each summer Earlham's "Explore a College" offers a wide range of course work, for which the high school student earns college credit. The pace is rigorous, classes all morning and afternoon, with material every evening to prepare for the next day. They are the type of courses that lend themselves to intensive study: foreign languages, photography, writing for college.

Living with other teens from all over the country and all over the world, including Burma, Japan and Turkey, extended the learning far beyond the classroom. Mostly aged 16 and 17, a wonderful mosaic of young people gathered for two weeks in the flat-land corn fields of Indiana. Additionally, upperclassmen served as resident assistants in the dorms and as teaching assistants in the classroom. Fraternizing with young adults who like their school enough to spend their summer there gives the prospective student personal access to enthusiastic college students.

Life at Earlham wasn't all work. Studying was interspersed with field trips, a night at the local bowling alley and late-night movie marathons. And there was a student-produced newspaper, the Earlham World, which covered the students' activities in words and pictures.

Applying for Explore a College as a homeschooler was simple and the admission standards were flexible. (There were several others in the group of 82 students.) A personal letter of recommendation replaced one from the high school counselor. The need for standardized test scores was waived. I wrote a letter summarizing our daughter's completed high school course work and extracurricular affiliations. Selection standards were high, however. Most of the students who attend Earlham's program score at the 90th percentile on standardized tests, promising a smart and academically motivated group.

A great experience bears repeating and Robert Hydrisko's book Early College Programs: Summer College Programs for High School Students, helped us select a second dip into college life.

"Hollinsummer," held annually at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, was our next choice. Founded in 1842 to bring the benefits of higher education to women, Hollins remains a single-sex, residential campus and as such, offered a different kind of experience. Their program is designed for 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-grade girls only. What would life be like at a single-sex school? What were the advantages and disadvantages? Hollins would help us find out.

Academically, girls enrolled in Hollinsummer take two courses of study over two weeks and do not receive credit. This design gave our daughter a chance to experience two professors and compare the dynamics of classrooms. She chose video production and Psychology: The Human Mind. For one project, the video class filmed the dance class, broadening the experience even further.

Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Hollins attracted 84 young women from all over the country. Creative writing, modern dance, literature and leadership were among the courses available. The dorm was air conditioned, a relief after a hot time the previous year in Indiana. Recreation was plentiful, the setting simply beautiful.

The Hollins experience was just as rewarding as Earlham. And this time the peer relationships, as well as the classroom, were outstanding--a great social as well as intellectual experience. The corridor of girls quickly bonded, sharing confidences and borrowing each other's clothes before the two weeks ended. Now emails and instant messages keep relationships alive long after the summer's tearful farewells.

Beyond building relationships and testing intellectual prowess, these programs help build resumes. Succeeding in an early college program may help your homeschooler stand out later as a college applicant. Both programs our daughter attended offered optional information sessions concerning college admissions. And each Hollinsummer student receives a $1000 credit toward tuition if she is applies and is accepted at Hollins.

However, as author Robert Hydrisko quickly points out, completing Stanford University's "Summer College for High School Students" doesn't mean you'll be accepted at Stanford, but it certainly can help distinguish you from the mass of applicants.

These few weeks away from home also gave our budding college student a much more realistic look at college life. Experiencing college professors, classrooms and co-operative (rather than competitive) learning with peers was expansive. And there was an unexpected bonus. An early college experience also gives homeschooling parents a taste of life beyond homeschooling. Just like the student, the teacher may find that easing into the future is a good idea.

© 2005 Joanne Yeck

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