By Racquel Joseph
University for Young People (UYP), an initiative of the Baylor School of Education’s Center for Community Learning and Enrichment, is a series of over thirty different summer classes offered for Waco-area gifted and talented students in first through twelfth grade.
Dr. Mary Witte is the current director of UYP and Project Promise, a similar program for low-income, “at-risk” students. UYP has been active for the past twenty-seven years. Courses currently offered in UYP run the gamut from “Bridge to China” with instruction in elementary Chinese and Tai Chi to “Aqua Explorers,” a course in the properties of water that includes a Kayak trip.
In “Digital Workshop,” a class taught by Baylor professor Dr. Mia Moody, students create a Facebook account, learn about online safety, and are given a crash course in producing a Flash website. The website features a YouTube video, a biography, a photo essay, and a sample of the students’ work, whether they be poets or athletes. When class begins, Moody asks them to open up their PowerPoint presentations. Like real college students, some of them head straight to Facebook. One seventh-grader opens the local news website and scrolls through the top stories.
Some of the kids in UYP are aware of how smart they are. While eating lunch in the hallway of Castellaw Communications Center and waiting for class to begin, one kid asks another, “How am I not supposed to brag about getting a one hundred on a seventh grade math test?” He is eleven.
They propose almost-plausible scientific theories as jokes: the Earth is oval. And then they pick the theory apart, looking for shortcomings.
Rasun and Zachary, students in “Digital Workshop,” have both been in UYP for two years.
“We get to make our own stuff. It’s like ‘real life’ school,” Rasun said.
Zachary, who especially liked the a class on robotics last summer, said, “This is a school I would willingly go to every year. It’s really independent walking around campus,” he said.
“Yeah,” Rasun agreed, “people look at you like you’re the smartest kid in the world.”
Witte is justly proud of the direction of the program as well as its counterpart, Project Promise. She says classes like “The Real Game of Life,” where students simulate earning a salary and raising a family, give students “a little more appreciation for what their parents go through,” while introducing higher education. She says that the program, which currently has about 220 students enrolled, is experiencing more applicants who need financial aid. Currently, students that attend on scholarship are beneficiaries of a City of Waco grant, but Project Promise has a very high retention rate and there are only five or six openings a year.
Catelia Romero is what Witte calls a Project Promise alumna. Romero is now a sophomore at Baylor majoring in accounting and is working as Witte’s “office manager” this summer. Romero attended University for Young People for nine years, and it helped her to identify her strengths and interests, just as it is intended to do. In the “Real Game of Life” course, she discovered how much she enjoyed drawing up budgets.
“I still have my products at home,” she said.
The courses at UYP change each summer to accommodate what available teachers want to teach and what the leadership thinks students and parents will respond to. As it continues to grow, Witte hopes they can find the necessary financial support to sustain the program. After all, some of these students would like to stay until they graduate–from college.