The Honors Summer Institute prepares high schoolers from underserved areas for college success. Photo: Bill Cotton/CSU Photography
Earlier this summer, 16 high school students from across the state visited Colorado State University’s Mountain Campus. They had just spent several days on the main campus as part of the first Honors Summer Institute. After dropping off their bags in cabins, the students met near a large meadow close to several trails.
Susan Panjabi, a senior botanist at CSU with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, provided a brief orientation and suggested the students start to make note of animals or plants that they could see or hear, including the calls from different birds. The students spread out in the meadow during this mini-meditation. Some used their backpacks as a pillow, while others took a restorative yoga pose.
“If you look across this meadow, it might not look all that diverse or interesting, but the closer you look and the more time you spend… you’ll start to see so many different species, and that the species are distributed in patterns,” she said.
“We have spruce and fir trees occurring together in a forest. The wetland plants, down by the water, they’re going to form a pattern on the landscape. You start to look for those patterns and species, birds that tend to be found with the riparian zone plants or up in the spruce-fir forest or aspen forest. The last step is to figure out the processes that support those patterns.”
The aim, said Panjabi, was to really help the students arrive at the mountain campus, relax and be open to all that it has to offer. The exercise was just a small part of the Honors Summer Institute, an initiative created by Don Mykles, director of the Honors Program, and instructor Sarah Zwick-Tapley, to help more students from rural and underserved parts of the state learn about CSU and its Honors Program, first established in 1957.
Video: Ben Ward/CSU
Going to college can be intimidating, said Mykles, a biology professor in the College of Natural Sciences. “If students are first-generation or don’t have a lot of familiarity with academia or honors programs, we find that they apply to the program at a lower rate,” he explained.
To wit, one of the summer institute participants, April Hurtado, said in her hometown of Rifle, located in western Colorado, there are not many opportunities for high school students to learn about and be exposed to higher education.
“I’m a first-gen student, so going into college is scary. We have an opportunity like this once in a blue moon,” she said, describing the weeklong experience at CSU. “It’s amazing because it’s not just a couple days or a two-hour seminar about CSU. We’re getting involved, and seeing what college is actually like. For CSU to extend that arm, to help us be better prepared for college, is definitely an amazing thing.”
“For CSU to extend that arm, to help us be better prepared for college, is definitely an amazing thing.”
— April Hurtado, Honors Summer Institute participant
CSU Honors Program
Students in CSU’s Honors Program take part in small, discussion-based seminars taught by some of the university’s top faculty members. They also receive personalized academic advising, have access to leadership opportunities, research and community service, and special scholarships.
This fall, there will be over 1,700 students participating in the program. The incoming class of 500 Honors Program students will be the largest and most diverse in the program’s history, Mykles said.
Dr. John “Jack” Murray (’57) and his wife, Nadine (’58) provided funds to support the summer institute. He said he took part in what’s been dubbed the first class of honors students at CSU when former Professor Willard Eddy asked a group of students if they wanted to meet and talk about Russian author Leo Tolstoy.
Apart from that meet-up, Murray said what made his career was being connected at CSU with a group of highly intelligent, motivated and somewhat serious students. He said all of them went on to graduate school and landed high-profile jobs with top corporations like American Airlines and universities such as Harvard University and the California Institute of Technology.
“It was fairly amazing,” he said, reflecting back on his days as an undergraduate and those relationships.
Years later, when he read about the Honors Program at CSU, it reminded him of those important connections he developed in Fort Collins.
“I thought it was important if we could find overlooked all-star students to recruit, just like a football team,” Murray said. “If the football team can do it, why can’t we?”
Mykles and Zwick-Tapley, Honors Summer Institute coordinator, sent emails to 500 high school teachers in the state as part of the recruitment process. They provided a brief description of the new program and asked them to nominate one or two students that they felt would benefit from the learning experience.
“It was a very effective way to get those students here,” Mykles said. “This is a wonderful group of students.”
“This is a wonderful group of students.”
— Don Mykles, director of CSU’s Honors Program and professor, Dept. of Biology
Over the week, these all-stars took part in a mix of academic and artistic immersive experiences, along with recreational activities. The Honors Program partnered on these classes with other departments that host summer programs for high school students.
“We offered classes in some areas that they might not have considered for majors,” Zwick-Tapley said. The list included construction management, art and social justice, anatomy, mask-making, fashion fundamentals — where the students used a computer program to design their own fabric and then made a bag out of it — and natural resources.
The students also went rafting on the Poudre River, swam at Horsetooth Reservoir, and attended a drive-in movie at the Holiday Twin in Fort Collins.
Four peer mentors who are current Honors Program participants served as camp counselors.
Santanna Pacheco, a self-described nature lover and a senior who is majoring in business, said that helping out with the institute was a great experience. “It’s very fulfilling to hang out with people that are younger than me and show them what it’s like to be in college, and all the possibilities that are there,” he said.
Next year, Mykles said the team plans to hold two camps and will host 40 students.
As for the students who attended this year’s camp, they’re excited to prepare for the next chapter. Hurtado said she’s now sold on becoming a Ram.
“I really want to go to CSU,” she said, enthusiastically. “The courses they offer are outstanding. The new lab for anatomy is one of the best in the country. They offer and provide a lot to their students.”
The Colorado Natural Heritage Program is part of the Warner College of Natural Resources.