Summer Institute Helps Topple Barriers

Tough backgrounds notwithstanding, these students shine — thanks to their own determination and the Summer Institute.   by Gary E. Frank

For Betty Jeanne Rueters-Ward ’04, the most rewarding experience of her time at Ithaca College came after she graduated.

Weeks after receiving her bachelor’s degree in sociology, Rueters-Ward returned to campus as a graduate intern for the Summer Institute, which offers a preview of the College experience to about 50 incoming freshmen each year. The Summer Institute is part of the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) at Ithaca, which offers opportunities to financially and academically disadvantaged students. The College has offered HEOP since the mid-1960s, and hundreds of students have benefited and graduated from it.

“The Summer Institute made me realize that my journey through Ithaca College was much bigger than just four years as a student,” says Rueters-Ward. The journey for the Summer Institute students started from a much less privileged upbringing than her own had been. “Many of these incoming students are students of color in the Higher Education Opportunity Program, and sometimes the first in their family to go to college,” she says. “Witnessing how they build close community, struggle with challenges in their transition to college, and tackle intense academic work has been humbling.” Rueters-Ward, who has also been an instructor for the program, is now working toward her master of arts in religious leadership for social change at the Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist seminary in California. 

During a three-and-a-half-week session in midsummer, students in the Summer Institute come to campus for an academically intensive experience which introduces them to college-level classes, evening study hours, collaborative group studies, after-hours coffee talk discussions, and individual tutoring sessions.

“Our overall mission,” says Sue Chaffee, assistant director of academic enrichment services and director of HEOP, “is to provide incoming HEOP and ALANA [African, Latino, Asian, and Native American] students a social, academic, and residential experience that will help them successfully make the transition to Ithaca College. We familiarize them with the campus community, the greater Ithaca community, and a wide range of academic and nonacademic resources.”

It would be a serious error to view the Summer Institute as remedial in nature, points out Rueters-Ward. “These students have an incredible work ethic,” she says. “It’s the summer after high school and there they are, working 12 hours a day, and they work with such passion and commitment. It’s phenomenally inspiring.”

There’s an annual academic theme, tying the summer curriculum together and giving students continuity in their classes. Trena Haffenden, an academic consultant and writing instructor at Ithaca, has taught two institute courses each summer for the past three years. “It’s an exciting time for the students,” she says, “as they are taking their first steps in college life. Many of them come in and express how nervous they are. They’re scared, and you can see that disappear over the course of the program as they gain more confidence and become comfortable with each other and with their surroundings.”  Haffenden teaches one of the team-study courses, which culminate in a Summer Institute Colloquium. Each team of roughly 10 students has to prepare a 20- to 30-minute presentation on the yearly theme. This past summer the theme was “The Global Participant,” and the student teams made presentations on such topics as “Personal Identity and International Travel,” “African Films,” “Alternate Fuels,” “Globalization,” and “The Global Footprint.”

Edwin Vega ’02 has experienced the Summer Institute as a student, instructor, and peer counselor. (Peer counselors are juniors and seniors whose role is a combination of resident adviser, teaching assistant, mentor, and even event planner; they also manage activities such as a Fashion and Talent Show and a volleyball tournament.) The academic rigor of the institute program, he says, prepared him well for the challenges of college. “It was the best jump start I could have gotten,” he says.

The HEOP program is often also an incubator for student leadership. “The Summer Institute helped me to become a leader and make my place at Ithaca College,” says Vega, who also conducted the College’s gospel choir for three years and later was nominated to the alumni association board of directors. A music education and vocal performance major at IC, Vega is now pursuing an opera career.

Catherine Borst ’08, an exercise science and pre-med major from East Greenbush, New York, says her Summer Institute experience encouraged her to become involved in a variety of activities, including the Asian Culture Club (of which she is currently president) and a spring break trip to New Orleans to help with Hurricane Katrina relief.

Linnette Edwards ’02 is another institute alumna who went on to become a graduate intern in the program. “I loved it,” she says. “I felt I had a network of people who were constantly rooting for me and providing me with opportunities to grow. They showed me the ropes, and what I could expect in the transition from high school to college.” The Summer Institute and the subsequent support Edwards received from the HEOP program directly influenced her career path. After earning a master’s degree in higher education administration at New York University, she is an academic counselor at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale, New York.

In many ways Cornell Woodson ’09 is the archetype of a student the Summer Institute — and HEOP — are intended to help, someone with demonstrated potential who hails from a disadvantaged community. In Woodson’s case, that is Camden, New Jersey, outside Philadelphia — one of the poorest municipalities in the country, where three of seven high schools have been identified by state education officials as being “persistently dangerous.”

Woodson was able to attend a private Quaker school, where he was elected to multiple terms as student government president and lettered in three sports. At Ithaca, he is majoring in communication management and design, and is also a pre-med student with two minors: health-communications and health policy and management. Outside the classroom, he is vice president of campus affairs for the Student Government Association, executive director of the Unity Council, a Campus Center building manager, a President’s Host Committee member, and a student ambassador for the admission office. He’s also maintaining a 3.0 grade point average.

Woodson hopes to eventually bring his experiences and skills to bear back in his hometown. Professionally, he would like to be involved in health care even if he doesn’t attend medical school. But there’s still more he wants to do. “Where I come from, not too many kids go on to finish college,” he says. “I also want to serve as a role model for kids, so that they can meet someone from there who made it and see that they can, too.”

The relationships he formed during the Summer Institute evolved into a “family” that Woodson relies upon for support and advice whenever things get difficult. “For people like us, who come from underprivileged, underrepresented cultures, it’s good to know that we can make it,” says Woodson, “and that there are people out there who want to make you have all the necessary resources and support to make it.”