Special Olympics. He never met the athletes benefiting from this National Honor Society (NHS) fundraiser, but an immersive summer week in Washington, D.C., had brought him face to face with lives far different than his.

“It was easy for me to understand the connection because I learned that there’s more to it than what you see on TV,” says Frank, now a sophomore at Northeastern University in Boston. “It added a more personal touch to our fundraising and its effect on people.”

Students who do summertime college immersion programs discover newfound motivations to grow as leaders and scholars. Officials from precollege programs agree: Using the NHS pillars as a guide to gauge student goals and evaluate the value of programs helps assure a productive immersive experience.

“These four pillars should be lifelong skills,” says Patrick Wu, senior educational adviser for the Young Scholars Program at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. “The more we can move away from the check-box approach to summer and toward the skills that the pillars emphasize, the more successful students are going to be.”

The ABCs of Immersion

Some students opt for experiences that broaden their perspectives, Wu says. Others turn a laser focus on career studies. Frank did both. As a high school student in Buffalo, NY, and Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Young Scholar, his summertime immersions ranged from studying marine life aboard a schooner, to immersive service, to engineering studies. All were “pretty unrelated because I hadn’t really settled on what I wanted to do,” he says.

His vision gelled as he eyed a career in engineering and chose a three-week leadership seminar to build the necessary collaboration skills. Frank learned about the importance of communication in an exercise challenging students to arrange photos in sequence. “All people approach a problem with their specific set of views, but you need to reach out to connect together,” he says. “You’ve got to have a lot of collaboration between all these people, rather than playing ‘go fish.’ ”

Northwestern University’s Civic Education Project (CEP) offers CivicWeek and Civic Leadership Institute (CLI) programs, combining service learning with academics and reflection. Participants “want to make an impact on their community and would like to learn more about how to do that,” says Lindsay Wall Succari, Center for Talent Development program coordinator.

CLI students develop action plans to address social issues, with many focusing on inclusion or mental health, Succari says. They identify their personal strengths and weaknesses. Classwork introduces them to young people who have effected change in past social movements, such as the civil rights movement.

“You’re not going to come to us and learn how to change the world in three weeks,” Succari says. “In the end, it’s about how they want to take action when they return home.”

At Brown University, the school is deeply invested in the ties between research and academics, and strives to align precollege programs with the liberal arts experience, says Adrienne L. Marcus, associate dean of precollege programs and undergraduate programs. That includes building diverse precollege instructional practices and enrollment under the university-wide Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, which promotes a “vibrant learning environment.”

“Students leave our programs understanding that there’s so much more to learn,” Marcus says. “There’s so much more in the world than in their hometown or their home city. There are so many different kinds of families that are not just the family they live in. There are different kinds of religions and cultures. If we provide an experience where students can leave here with more questions than answers, we’ve done a good job.”

NHS Pillars

Quality programs reflecting the four NHS pillars expose high school students to college life, broaden perspectives, and often result in action plans for community change.


Students can leverage summer programs by choosing those offering academic credit, but it doesn’t have to be the deciding factor, Wu says. “There’s not a right or wrong way. We advise that they have a clear idea of whether they’re looking for academic credit or if it’s not important.”

Brown’s academic rigor extends into the Brown Environmental Leadership Lab (BELL)—two-week sessions that blend experiential with academic opportunities for students passionate about environmental activism. While students might hike glaciers in Alaska, snorkel in the Florida Keys, or explore Rhode Island’s natural world, they are expected in the classroom to “synthesize and understand how everything fits in the global context,” says BELL Director Jane Diener.

“We incorporate as much global context as we can, so students don’t walk away thinking this is just a Rhode Island ecosystem or just an Alaska problem,” she says. “We talk about things in a way that allows them to work on their own to connect to other topics. We encourage that internal discussion and brainstorming and being an active listener and active learner, and hopefully a lifelong learner.”

In all Brown programs, Marcus adds, students are preparing for college by “getting a sense of what it means to time manage, get to class on time, have the work done, leave class, and know what they need to be doing.”

Frank’s summer experiences gave him the skills and motivation to teach STEM principles to young students and serve on the board of a STEM outreach group.

“Education is one of the most important things in life,” he says. “Spreading education and instilling a love of learning early on helps others pave the road to success.”


Service experiences aligned with curriculum are among CEP’s most powerful offerings, Succari says. An introduction to the root causes of poverty can include preparing meals or sorting donations. Sessions on power and privilege allow students to see the multiple ways advocacy takes flight, whether through phone banking, social media, or collecting signatures.

To make the lessons stick, students have built-in time for reflection through the “what now?” model, thinking about what they’ve seen and what they can do about it.

Wu agrees that well-crafted classroom days can illuminate the purpose behind service. Teaching asset-based community development, for instance, turns the focus from neighborhood problems to neighborhood strengths that can be leveraged for progress. With that new perspective, “students go out and do service, rather than take an ‘us helping you’ standpoint,” Wu says. “It makes the service more meaningful.”


Leadership lessons can infuse every part of a program, from skill-building activities such as Frank’s photo exercise to daily life in a dorm. Students “overcome obstacles on their own, reinventing themselves and seeking leadership opportunities in a collaborative setting,” Wu says.

“Students learn how to do things on their own and how to help other people. A big thing is learning how to see asking for help as a sign of leadership instead of a sign of weakness.”

Plus, in new environments many students flourish with the chance to “take more risks and be themselves,” he adds.

Brown University’s leadership programs use the social change model, cultivating common values such as consciousness of self, collaboration, and controversy with civility. BELL students are often natural leaders who “feel strongly about moving forward in the environmental movement” but need guidance on “working with any population of people” in order to effect change, Diener says. “We hope they leave with the understanding that not every population needs the same type of leader,” she says. “Sometimes leadership means stepping back a little bit, and sometimes being a leader means really stepping up.”


Reputable college immersion programs are steeped in character-building opportunities. CLI students uphold an honor code, “very much a living, breathing document in how students engage with each other,” Succari says. They pledge to treat each other with respect and talk about social issues as if someone in the room has experienced them.

“We take a long-term view,” she says. “It’s only three weeks, but we look at our responsibility as giving them tools and challenging them with questions as they start to develop their own ideas and identities.”

At BELL, students pledge adherence to community values of their choosing, such as harmony, optimism, and open-mindedness, Diener says. “They’re never simple. They’re involved, and deep, and thoughtful.”

“The decision to go and learn for a big chunk of the summer involves a certain type of character right off the bat,” Frank says. “You go into these programs and know you have people who care about learning.”

Frank says that Northwestern’s CivicWeek improved his character, making him “more aware of problems that afflict society and wanting to do something about them, rather than just turning around and going home and not really doing anything.”

Finding the Right Fit

Pushing students out of their comfort zones is among CEP’s goals, Succari says. The “challenge by choice” approach puts ownership on students, who are reminded to think about immersion programs as a tool for their own development as an adult. “We’re trying to train students on some pretty advanced stuff, but they rise to the occasion,” she says. “Students do amazing work, and they build community with each other and work with diverse peers.”

Different styles of programming resonate with different learners, Wu says. Reading reviews, contacting past students, and talking to program officials can offer insights into the extent of hands-on versus classroom learning and other aspects, he says.

For the service element, which is crucial to aligning with the NHS pillars, Wu advises seeking programs that “have a long, sustainable, meaningful connection to the communities they’re serving, where they’re working in tandem and solidarity with those communities.”

Wu challenges students to explain “why a summer program is a good fit at this time of their lives. If they can’t, we pull it from the table.” He tells students, “If the only reason you’re doing something is because you think it will help you get into college, that activity will not get you into college. We encourage our students to do things they’re passionate about, because that’s what colleges want to see.”

Increasingly, programs offer significant financial aid, striving to “mimic the college experience and make sure the student body over the summer is diverse,” Wu says. Students who get the most from the experience are “curious about the world” and are striving to be “a scholar for life, a service-oriented leader, and have strong character. If you’re always aiming toward that, you’ll always be growing.”

Diane McCormick is a writer based in Pennsylvania.


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