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    The Surprising Effects a Summer Program Had On My Life

    Posted by Catherine Collins

    You wouldn't think spending three weeks in a high school summer program would have such a profound impact on my life, but it did.

    During the summers of 2004 and 2005, I attended the National Institute for American History and Democracy’s Pre-Collegiate Program. I traveled from my home state of Louisiana to Williamsburg, Virginia, stayed in the dorms on the historic College of William and Mary’s campus, and had the opportunity to study history firsthand.

    This program is unique because it utilizes Virginia as its classroom. After reading scholarly works about the Civil War, for example, dozens of us piled into big white vans and went to stand on battlefields we’d read about the night before. There’s something about getting to physically be in places you’re learning about, locations that shaped our history and culture. It heightens the educational experience to the point you feel it in your bones. 

    During the day, we took notes and photos (back then on digital cameras) while on location and engaged in lively discussions. In the evening, we uploaded our photos and thoughts in a blog format. The articles we wrote combined what we learned from scholarly articles, our group discussions, and our time at each site. It was the first time I learned how to synthesize many different types of information and present it along with my interpretation.

    I didn’t realize it at the time but there, I met wonderful fellow students, resident assistants, and professors who would later play an important role in helping me transition during a significant time in my life. In fact, a month after completing my second summer with NIAHD, I went back to my home state of Louisiana and prepared to matriculate as a college freshman at Tulane University. But, the same day I moved into my dorm, I turned right around and left as the entire city evacuated for Hurricane Katrina. 

    I spent a few semesters at nearby LSU while my family and home state rebuilt, but after some time, I decided to transfer to the other place that felt like home: William and Mary. It wouldn’t have been possible without my NIAHD professors, who wrote letters of recommendation for me and explained how to apply for a financial aid exception due to the unexpected circumstances of the hurricane. I was awarded a grant that made tuition affordable enough to matriculate there as a student, where I majored in history.

    My time attending the NIAHD Pre-Collegiate Program twice meant I was familiar with William and Mary’s campus and knew a few friendly faces already. I even knew where to grab the best snacks and the tastiest sandwich that I still crave to this day. This greatly helped me with my transition during a difficult personal time. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a college student at William and Mary. I interned at several museums, took incredible history classes, and walked in Colonial Williamsburg every chance I could.

    After college, I attended graduate school at Virginia Tech for history, where I decided to start a blog about frugal living as a creative outlet. There I was, taking photos of the thrift store table in my tiny graduate school apartment, and uploading it to the internet, not unlike my blogging days back at the Pre-Collegiate program in high school.

    What unfolded is still surprising to me. It was that blog, not my graduate degree, that launched my career. After writing about living a good life on my small graduate student budget, I started freelance writing for other outlets, using my blog as a portfolio to get gigs. Over 10 years, the blog grew, as did my freelance writing career. Today, I’ve had the fortune of having bylines in large publications, a book deal with Wiley, and now own five different blogs with a business partner where we publish content daily. 

    All that to say, attending a summer program led to more than just a few college credits. For me,  I found a place I belonged with people who had similar interests. I had my first taste of a skill that, 18 years later, enables me to do what I love every day. I found a home and a second place to retreat to when my world turned upside down from Hurricane Katrina. I met friends who stood in my wedding (and I in theirs). 


    So, if you're considering going to a college program in the summer, just know that it's so much more than taking a class. You never know who you're going to meet and what skills you’ll learn. It just may impact the course of your life, and by extension, your college experience, friendships, and career in very unexpected ways.

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    Catherine Collins