Date July 13, 2023
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‘Opening up horizons of curiosity’: Pre-College Programs offer a taste of the Brown experience

During the summer months, thousands of high school students are taking up residence on campus, studying across the globe and participating online in Brown’s wide-ranging Pre-College Programs, which offer intensive academics, research experiences and more.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Before attending Brown University’s Pre-College Programs, high school student Andreas Wimmershoff-Gonzalez said he was “the least social person.”

Now, the 17-year-old from Bronxville, New York, is comfortable striking up conversations with random people in the classroom and around College Hill, or asking for help and seeking directions on campus.

For Miriam Gegechkori, a 16-year-old international student from Tbilisi, Georgia, the sheer breadth of perspectives among her Pre-College classmates has been eye opening.

“[In Georgia], in a school environment or even in a social environment, we would never get to talk about some of the topics that we are exploring here,” she said. “I think it's valuable and a great thing to have an opportunity to discuss things that would probably get avoided back home.” 

A student is in focus, sitting paying attention during class
Andreas Wimmershoff-Gonzalez, pictured during a bioethics course, said his time in Brown's Pre-College Program will help ease some of the social awkwardness he expects to encounter during his first few weeks of college. Photo by Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

Wimmershoff-Gonzalez and Gegechkori are among thousands of teenagers who are participating in the University’s 11 different summer Pre-College Programs, designed to give high schoolers from around the globe a sampling of Brown University’s academic and collegiate life.

While each Pre-College program is distinct, they are all engineered to prepare students for their eventual collegiate experience, regardless of whether they end up on College Hill.

“This is not a ‘one and done’ situation,” said Adrienne Marcus, dean of Brown’s Division for Pre-College and Undergraduate Programs. “It’s an opportunity to really begin to get a sense of how to navigate a space that may be radically different from their high schools or hometowns. And it's a great way to share the joy of learning that’s perpetually happening across the campus.”

Summer@Brown, the largest Pre-College offering, features more than 300 one- to six-week courses that reflect a wide range of topics and offers young students the opportunity to live on College Hill — or join remotely from anywhere around the world — and embrace new perspectives on how to work, learn and live. While the vast majority of students who participate in the Pre-College Programs are enrolled in Summer@Brown, Pre-College programming is as diverse as the fields Brown undergraduates choose to study.

The Brown Environmental Leadership Lab combines concepts in environmental studies, ecology and leadership, with programs this year taking place in Alaska, the Eastern Sierras in Mammoth Lake, California, and even right here in Rhode Island. Brown Experiential Education programs offer rigorous academic and cultural immersion experiences for high schoolers in Rome and Segovia, Spain. The Leadership Institute prioritizes collaborative problem-solving and solution development combined with leadership skill development in areas such as social entrepreneurship, racial justice, law and social movements and gender equity. And still others encourage 9th and 10th graders to advance their knowledge of STEM disciplines or offer new high school graduates the opportunity to earn college credit during Brown’s Summer Session in its Pre-Baccalaureate program.

Students in Brown’s 2023 Pre-College Programs come from all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C., Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico; and 79 different countries are represented in the Pre-College student body, from Kuwait and Georgia to Australia and Italy.

Over the course of six weeks this summer, 6,300 students chose to study with Brown, according to Marcus. Nearly 5,100 students are living on campus or at several locations both domestically and abroad. Just over 1,200 students are participating in online offerings, some of whom are taking multiple classes, contributing a total of 6,800 summer course enrollments.

Marcus said that this year marks the first time the on-campus programs were condensed to five weeks, rather than the traditional seven — which means a lot of students on campus for the entire summer. There’s no usual ebb and flow as entire cohorts leave and others arrive; rather, the flux is constant, with a steady 2,000 students living on campus each week.

That’s larger than a typical pre-college program at other universities, she said.

“One of the unique qualities of Brown Pre-College is definitely its size,” Marcus said. “It creates an experience for students very similar to what they would have at a liberal arts college where there are a lot of people engaging in a wide variety of courses and activities, and students don’t know everybody on campus. It’s a real hallmark of our programs.”

A foray into college-level academics

When Brown Professor of International Studies Daniel Smith first began teaching Summer@Brown courses eight years ago, he didn’t know what to expect from the students or the level of rigor they could achieve, but his doubts were quickly laid to rest.

“I’ve been impressed from the beginning, but I would say each year the classes get more and more sophisticated and able to take on complex issues,” Smith said. “And I know that at least some of it is my realizing that I can push them more, expect more from them, and they can handle it.”

A student wears a VR headset
A student uses virtual reality to navigate a therapeutic to a receptor in various parts of the body as part of a course centered on therapeutic innovations. Photo by Kate Levin/Brown University

Though most high schoolers have taken classes in the humanities or social studies, Smith said that for some, it’s their very first exposure to the field of anthropology. Introducing them to this discipline isn’t a responsibility he takes lightly, but it is one he thoroughly enjoys.

“What I like best is, for lack of a better way of putting it: blowing their minds,” he said, explaining that he has a similar experience during the academic year when he teaches a first-year seminar. “I get them before they’ve had a chance to become more sophisticated and maybe even cynical. I get to have a first crack at introducing them to the importance of society, the importance of political economy and culture, the profound effects of inequality and poverty.”

While the academic elements of Smith’s class are stimulating, he said it’s the students’ inquisitiveness and the conclusions they’re able to uncover themselves that’s most satisfying to see: “Opening up horizons of curiosity that they can then pursue in college — that's certainly the important part,” he said.

That opportunity to introduce critical topics to young people who are open and eager to learn is also a motivating factor for Brown Senior Lecturer in Biology and Molecular Microbiology and Immunology Aisling Dugan. Dugan has been instructing summer Pre-College courses since 2006, back when she was a graduate student at Brown herself, working toward a Ph.D. in pathobiology.

“Especially ahead of the college-application process, where there’s so much extrinsic value on performance, students can end up feeling less excited about the process of learning,” she said. “Here, they get back to the reason that we, as human beings, love to learn — it’s intrinsically interesting!”

Her course, “Moral Medicine: Questions in Bioethics at the Cutting Edge,” explores major topics in bioethics, ranging from reproductive medicine and genetics to allocation of medical resources and death. She echoed Smith’s sentiment that many students come in with basic foundations of biology, but she gets the responsibility of expanding their knowledge.

“What I can bring is the current-event element, modern technologies, primary literature — I’m able to inject a little bit more of what makes science alive for me,” Dugan said.

It’s also a chance to show them the distinct aspects of academics at Brown, especially when it comes to collaboration and student-driven learning.

“ This is not a ‘one and done’ situation. It’s an opportunity to really begin to get a sense of how to navigate a space that may be radically different from their high schools or hometowns. And it's a great way to share the joy of learning that’s perpetually happening across the campus. ”

Adrienne Marcus Dean of Brown’s Division for Pre-College and Undergraduate Programs

For Vaishnavi Attili, a 16-year-old high school junior from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Pre-College has enabled her to delve into anthropology, experience the ways that Brown’s Open Curriculum can shape an educational journey, and engage in rigorous discussion and debate among her classmates.

“It’s really interesting to see how other people think; it made me realize a lot of things that I didn’t necessarily realize before,” Attili said, noting that she estimates about half of her learning came from simply listening to her peers share their own knowledge and perspectives. “It offered such valuable insight in the world and how it actually works.”

A realistic simulation of collegiate life

In addition to preparing students for college-level academics, another benefit of Brown’s Pre-College Programs is the practical experience they gain ahead of attending their first year of college.

Sometimes in the span of just one week, students get a taste of the self-sufficiency required to succeed in college, whether it’s navigating a campus, figuring out how to do laundry and ensuring they get to the dining halls in time to eat, attending faculty office hours or discovering the myriad cultural and community resources available to them. It’s a level of freedom that some may not be used to.

“What that means is that they have to learn how to manage their time,” Marcus said. “No one is waking them up in the morning to get to their class. No one is telling them when to go to the dining hall or telling them what to eat. We ask them to take a lot of responsibility for themselves, and the vast majority of them rise to the occasion, which is really remarkable.”

Students sit together laughing on the Main Green, with a food truck in the background
The summer kicked off with a Pre-College Block Party on the College Green, featuring food trucks, lawn games, a live DJ and other activities. Photo by Kate Levin/Brown University
That’s certainly been the case for Wimmershoff-Gonzalez, the student from Bronxville, New York.

“Personally, I feel like I've been sort of pressure-cooked to engage with other people,” he said. “I didn't really know anybody, and I’m only here for five days. So I’ve really been forced out of my comfort zone in terms of being talkative and outgoing.”

Even current Brown undergraduates see the benefits of Pre-College Programs.

Rising Brown senior and neuroscience concentrator Ashley Kim serves as an undergraduate teaching assistant to Dugan in microbiology courses during the academic year, but over the summer, she’s helping Dugan with her Moral Medicine class. After seeing what Pre-College participants experience during their stay on College Hill, she said she wishes she had taken a similar approach back when she was in high school.

“A program like this would have definitely helped better prepare me for college,” Kim said. “But whether these students decide to apply to Brown or not, I think that they’ll be able to take what they learn — not just from the lectures, but from each other — back to wherever they head off to.”

Attili, who enrolled in Smith’s “Global Health: Inequality, Culture, and Human Well-being Around the World” course, hopes to bring her knowledge back to Brown when it’s time to apply for college. She said she loved the “preview” of a Brown education, and perhaps not uncoincidentally, her experience as a Summer@Brown participant mirrored that of a typical Brown student in another way: So inspired by her time in Smith’s classroom, she is considering a different academic path than the one she had in mind just a few months ago. 

She always knew she wanted to apply to Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education, and that hasn’t changed. But instead of focusing on neuroscience, now she’s interested in exploring a concentration in anthropology and possibly working toward a Ph.D. in the same field.

“Now that I’m here, it made me more convinced that I want to go [to Brown],” Attili said. “The whole experience has spoken to what college is like. But this class actually confirmed what I want to do once I get there.”