Posted April 28, 2021

Counting down to the graduation of the first Summer Academy students

As the first Summer Academy cohort prepares for graduation, they look back on their experiences in the pilot program.

Natalie Ross standing before a sunset.
Photography By: 
Ryan S. Brandenberg
Natalie Ross in 2021, a participant in the original Summer Academy program, is in her senior year at Temple and graduating in May.

It’s the summer of 2016 and the weather rises toward sweltering. A wave of giddy, nervous energy runs through a group of high school students as they take in their first taste of independence. For the next three weeks, these young, promising leaders will be living on campus as the first class of Temple’s Summer Academy Pre-college Program. 

“Since it launched five years ago, the goal of the academy has always been to introduce 11th and 12th graders to Temple, give them an opportunity to earn college credits and encourage them to apply to the university,” explained Nicole Westrick, associate vice provost and champion of this program. “The students are taught skills and lessons they can build on for a lifetime.”

Summer Academy students who complete the for-credit portion of the course with a grade of B or better earn a $1,000 per year tuition grant for four years upon their enrollment as first-time, full-time, first-year Owls.

“I remember going back to high school afterwards and feeling more confident in myself, more independent, not knowing what I wanted but knowing how to communicate better,” said Leeannah McNew, Class of 2021, who enrolled in the program during its first year.

Today, seven members of that inaugural group, including McNew and Natalie Ross, Class of 2021, are in their senior year at Temple and rapidly approaching graduation. Though the classes and workshops were only a few short weeks, they created lessons that these students have expanded upon for the past five years.

“It was a dip into adulthood,” said McNew. “It was my first experience of being on my own without parental supervision, where I could make my own decisions to some extent, and to get to know myself along the way.”

At the time, the Summer Academy’s pilot program offered only Youth Cultures as its for-credit class and a leadership workshop. Today, in its various formats, the Summer Academy offers 30 different workshops, from which students choose two, and four for-credit classes, from which students choose one. The program has expanded to meet the needs of both students who want less pressure and a shorter duration, as well as those who take more for-credit courses over a longer period of time.

Beyond the classroom setting and outside of the pandemic, students have the opportunity to go on regular outings to landmarks in Philadelphia. Along the way, they learn valuable skills for living in the city, including navigating public transit, time management and more.

“It was developing skills by putting us in a lot of new situations,” said Ross. “It helped us to discover some strengths and weaknesses that we didn’t even know we had before, and that we wouldn’t have learned about had we not done this program together.”

One of the most important lessons Ross learned was recognizing when to take the lead and when to step back. Ross said that every role in a group is important and has its own rewards. The key is for teammates to use their individual strengths to work together and to acknowledge one another’s contributions. 

“A leader is nothing without the people they lead,” said Ross. “I love seeing people in their element, doing what they love, especially when I’m not the most confident in a particular field.”

Ross said those lessons are key to her future career in nursing. 

“People’s lives are on the line, so it’s important to know when to speak up versus when to step back and let someone else handle the situation,” said Ross. “There’s no pride in nursing, because you can’t play with people’s lives like that.”

Leeannah McNew standing near purple flowers.

Leeannah McNew, Class of 2021, participated in the 2016 Summer Academy program and is approaching graduation from Temple this summer. (Photo by Ryan S. Brandenberg)

McNew walked away with an equally important mindset. The workshop helped her to define herself and the type of leader she is. With a passion for advertising that she’s seeking to turn into a career, McNew focused on becoming a better communicator. She’s made it a point to check in with people in group projects, help them develop ideas and assist with motivation. 

The question she always tries to ask is “What can I do to make you feel like you’re in a better place to do this project?”

Beyond simply being a good leader, McNew said she learned to stand up for herself, to take more initiative and to be more assertive with her boundaries, which she said is very difficult for a 16-year-old to do without first being taught how. Ross learned what mattered most to her and what dealbreakers existed in her life. 

“It was like college lite. You don’t have the 18 credits, midterms and final exams, but you had the responsibility of a seven-page paper and exploring the city,” said Ross. “Plus you had a crash course in being a good roommate.”

After their experiences with the Summer Academy, and with the promise of a $4,000 tuition grant, it was a no-brainer for Ross, McNew and many others to enroll in Temple as soon as possible. With these courses under their belts, McNew and Ross had a better understanding of how to apply for college, while broadening their horizons. 

“Temple is like this melting pot of goodness. It brings in students from all over the world, so you’re constantly interacting with different types of people,” said McNew. “It makes you more understanding, accepting, inviting and it expands your worldview.”

Learn more about Temple’s Summer Academy programs

—Rayna Lewis