A hot North Carolina summer filled the room as my roommate and I looked out the window. It was open because our dorm, like all the others on campus, had no air conditioning. We looked out to see two girls standing under a tree beneath our window waving at us, inviting us to come down and introduce ourselves. The two of looked at each other, grinning, and headed down the stairs.
It was our first day on a college campus. We had only finished seventh grade.
Seventh-graders and SAT’s
Every year, as high school students across the country anxiously complete their college entrance exams—SAT, ACT, and other standardized tests—thousands of seventh-graders are in the room with them, taking the same tests. That are part of Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, designed to select exceptional students for the chance to spend a three-week summer session with other advanced seventh-grade students to take high-school and college-level courses in math, science, or the liberal arts.
Those middle-schoolers who score high enough on the standardized exams are often the same ones who find themselves bored or frustrated by the pace of their own classes, which often cater to the broadest section of middle-of-the-road students. Some have access to gifted classes, some don’t—but almost none have the chance to immerse themselves in a residential learning program, carefully constructed for an intense academic focus. Classes are six hours a day or longer, plus any homework, six days a week. About twenty students attend each class, with a teacher and one or two teaching assistants. Some classes have a structured syllabus, while others, like Math I, allow students to work at their own pace. It’s not unheard of for a first-year student to complete an entire high school math curriculum in a single three-week session.
But this is not a grind. This is fun, being able to rocket through a math class as fast as you can master it. And the students who attend TIP’s summer sessions almost universally credit TIP with changing their lives.
Demented and Sad, But Social
The self-avowed purpose of the program is academic, but some of the most profound effects are social. Many of those kids came from environments that not only lacked opportunity for high-level academic achievement, but were often downright hostile. My friend Jana, who first attended TIP in 1982, said that girls her age were actively discouraged from appearing smarter than the boys. And many of the boys found similar attitudes among their peers and even their elders. These were the geeks, the nerds, the nails that stuck out only to get hammered. And many, before coming to TIP, felt completely isolated.
Imagine the effect on a kids like that, of brining them to a college campus, away from parents, classmates, and the ordinary challenges of everyday life, and then surrounding them with other kids who felt exactly the same way, and could relate on a level none of their peers back home could match.
The effect is electrifying.
Let’s Light This Candle
When you take away the outside world, replace it with a cadre of true peers—other kids with upper-range intellects and a yearning to belong—fuel them with genuine academic challenge, and then stand back, you can almost hear all the pieces clicking into place for the previously confused or frustrated thirteen-year-olds. The boys, for the first time, found girls they could really feel safe just talking to without fear of being scorned as nerdy; the girls found boys who weren’t intimidated by a girl with a brain—boys who even valued them for their intellects. It’s no coincidence such large numbers of TIP alums admit having their first kiss on the grounds of East Campus. Among TIPsters, it’s almost a cliché.
But this isn’t just a story of awkward teens finding themselves and each other. Researchers at Duke and elsewhere have been combing through nearly three decades of data showing how TIP affected all of our lives. First, they discovered, the social development of TIP alumni has been “pretty normal”—most of us went on from our freakish awkwardness to get married and start families much like the general population did. But for educational and occupational development, TIP was rocket fuel.
Compared to kids who qualified for TIP but didn’t attend for whatever reason, TIP alums were nearly twice as likely to go into “STEM” careers (science, technology, engineering, and math) or other professions like medicine and law. They were nearly twice as likely as non-attendees to graduate from a “Top 15” college (mostly the Ivies and other usual suspects). Dramatically, TIP alums are three times as likely as non-attendees to have attained a doctorate or other terminal degree. (M.D., Ph.D., J.D.) Controlling for other variables, attending TIP as opposed to merely qualifying for it provided a big boost. Innate ability also matters, but the TIP experience itself made a substantial difference for those of similar ability. There’s something at work here and researchers are trying to figure out exactly what it is. For now, they call it a “black box.”
I had the yearbook pictures put on so everybody knows who everybody was.
This summer’s TIP reunion was in many ways like any other reunion. Thirteen -year-olds with glasses and striped knee socks had become forty-somethings with kids and SUV’s. We toured campus, danced to the songs from our youth, and swapped old stories into late into the night. But unlike reunions for high school classes—some of which got skipped because they fell on the TIP reunion weekend—no one came to Durham because they had something to prove. Just being on the rolls of TIP alumni was proof enough. Just like the day we stepped onto campus for the first time, we were instantly among our own kind. Even alums from different years, who had never met before, forged new bonds with each other because we had all been transformed in nearly the same way.
Thanks to the hard work of founding director Dr. Robert Sawyer and of Joy Baldwin, who until recently oversaw the day-to-day operations, TIP is growing faster than ever. It now has sessions on nine campuses, has begun to offer programs for fourth and fifth graders, and has even opened branches in India and China. More kids than ever will get exactly what they need at exactly the right time, drawing rocket fuel out of that “black box.”
Ask any TIP kid, past or present, what’s in the black box, and most will tell you it’s substantially social—the permission to be weird and wonderful and curious with a bunch of kids who, each in their own way, are doing the exact same thing. In my gut, I have to agree. It’s not the math classes we reminisced about (mostly) at the reunion. Academic challenge is important as a vehicle, but it’s the peer group the makes the real difference. The life changes TIP causes do not spring from the chance to learn algebra a couple of years early or a little faster than normal. It’s the chance to be in an environment where that kind of leaning is not only encourages, but is normal among one’s peers. And then it’s the chance to share all the out-of-class moments that bright, curious kids share when they’re talking about something other than what they learned in class that day. It was massive and intense cross-pollination from some of the most interesting people you could ever hope to meet. And it was also a bridge into young adulthood. For me, TIP started changing my life the moment my roommate and I turned away from the window, and went downstairs to talk to a couple of smart, pretty girls who were waiting to meet us under a tree.