As the sun sets over Wilbur Field, there is an electricity in the air. Competing shouts of “TRIDELT,” “TERRA,” and “ZAP” ring out as 500 high school students compete in the Olympics– the House Olympics, held at the end of every session of EPGY, the Education Program for Gifted Youth.
The EPGY Summer Institutes are academically intensive residential summer programs for high school and middle school students. Each student must go through a rigorous application process; however, students apply to study in a single subject area and are chosen based on their talent and motivation for their selected course. According to EPGY Summer Institutes Director Rick Sommer, around 1,300 students will be on campus during the course of the summer, from 45 states and 40 countries.
Once on campus, students live in student houses like Terra and Yost, grouped together by course of study. For example, math and physics students are often housed together. Stanford undergraduates serve as resident counselors– the combined responsibilities of resident assistants and teaching assistants– and play a critical role in running the program.
According to Sarahi Padilla ’11, who took her first job at EPGY four years ago, she wasn’t originally looking for too much from the job. “I didn’t want to sit at home over the summer, and I needed a job,” she said about her first year. After having worked at EPGY every summer since, however, she has learned the value of teaching and mentoring these students.
For others, like Dustin Fink ’14, who participated in the now-defunct EPGY Istanbul program in high school, it was the fond memories from their time as EPGY students that drew them back.
“With the summer coming up this past year, I knew I wanted to work on campus, and once I remembered EPGY… I knew from experience that it would be perfect for me,” he said.
Indeed, a common theme emerged among EPGY counselors: They all wanted to become better teachers. According to Sommer, the residential nature of the program is meant to facilitate an environment of shared learning between students and staff with common talents and interests in a way that wouldn’t happen in the students’ usual school and home settings.
Although there is a purposefully low student-counselor ratio, a majority of teaching is in a group setting.
“I knew I would be working with very bright students, and anticipated some of the problems I would encounter– overachievers, students who doubt their abilities, classroom competition,” Fink recalled. “I learned less about how to tutor individually and more about how to handle a class as a whole– how to manage a range of personalities, learning curves and abilities.”
The opportunity to mentor students and help them focus on their interests in a rigorous academic environment is often cited by counselors as one of the most rewarding aspects of the program. There is a strong emphasis on preparing students for the shock that comes with moving away from home and into an unfamiliar setting; Padilla recounts the first week as being “pure hell” for many. But just like freshmen, the EPGY students adapted once the tumultuous first week passed.
The rewards of teaching can also extend to counselors themselves. For Sabi Vega ’14, who only recently started coursework in computer science, the opportunity to teach has improved her understanding and appreciation of the principles of computer science.
“Absolutely I’m a better programmer,” she said. “Teaching has forced me to understand what I’m talking about so I don’t confuse the kids.”
Due to the challenges inherent in supervising and teaching high school students, the counselors form very tight bonds with each other. “We spend almost all our time together,” Vega said.
Sitting outside as the warring chants across Wilbur Field begin to die and students go to eat their final meal at EPGY, Padilla explains the impact of participating in EPGY on her life as succinctly as possible.
“The passion that I realized I have for watching kids grow intellectually and socially, observing how they form bonds, how they interact with the world around them, is all thanks to my involvement with EPGY,” she said. “The experience has shaped me profoundly.”