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summer program with robotics students
Summer for Success students study robotics.

By Richard Burnett

On his first day at Beacon College, Sahil felt like he had arrived on another planet. From the dorm room and campus to the town, nothing was familiar. By week’s end, however, all of his anxiety had faded. The place was like a second home.

“What brought the comfort level was finding the game tent that they had set up for us here,” said the rising high school senior from Orlando. “Once I landed there, all the unease went away. You got games, you got music, and you find friends. I couldn’t be happier.”

Sahil was part of another major turnout this year for Beacon’s annual Summer for Success program, a three-week immersion into collegiate life for high school students and rising first-year college students with learning differences.

The 2022 edition, which ended July 29, drew a record 134 students from across the U.S., an increase of 25 percent over last summer, according to Alex Morris-Wood, Beacon’s associate vice president of transition and student experience. Forty of the attendees will be first-year Beacon students in the upcoming fall semester.

“That creates a great opportunity for us all,” he said. “The summer program gives students a taste of college, and gives us a chance to identify their areas of strength earlier, which makes the transition a little easier for everybody.”

A summer of transformation

From classrooms to the Dining Commons, the aspiring college students bustled with excitement during the Summer for Success of 2022, as most of them experienced their first daily routines of college life. (Nearly 20 of them attended last year’s program and liked it so much, they returned for the 2022 session.)

“I absolutely love it,” said Bella Renshaw, 17, of San Diego, California, one of the returnees. “I was really nervous coming into it last year, especially on the first day. But as the first week went by, I had met so many super-nice friends. I think, by the end of the program, I felt like I was a completely different person.”

Many have experienced a similar transformation through the program, organizers said. The students often arrive uncertain and nervous, but step by step, they find their confidence, bolstered by steady support from the faculty and new friends.

“You often see students on their first day so attached to their parents, they don’t want to be separated,” said Brody Gliddon, senior coordinator of the 2022 program. “In a week or so, however, the students don’t want to leave Beacon; they want to stay. They find such great relationships here. It changes them and helps them mature. It’s just incredible to see their journey and the connections they make.”

More than 35 teachers, administrators, counselors, learning specialists and other support workers comprise the faculty for the summer session. It is spearheaded by a leadership core that includes Gliddon, Morris-Wood, Dr. Oksana Hagerty, dean of the Center for Student Success, and Dana Manzo, dean of wellness and student development.

“Summer for Success is a very collaborative model,” Morris-Wood said. “What we are working toward at Beacon is to remove silos in education because we understand our students are just a little more complex. Sometimes, they need more support outside the classroom in order to be successful.”

Outside the classroom, for example, Beacon has gone the extra mile to create a fun environment on campus for Summer for Success. Its student activities center features video games, talent shows, cookouts, concerts, comedy improv and other outlets to facilitate the students’ socialization at the college level.

Disney, snakes, robots and Beacon

Of course, inside the classroom is the program’s main focus, with a wide-ranging curriculum that offers more than two dozen courses, including something for everyone — from aspiring artists, scientists, humanitarians and computer geeks to those who need to brush up on independent living skills.

A major hit last year — The Imagination Experience, a course that highlights Disney World in Florida — drew such a popular response Beacon introduced another theme-park related course this year called Beyond Imagination!, a broader, in-depth look at Florida’s tourism economy.  Both courses were sold out, reaching maximum capacity early in the enrollment period.

Students also flocked to another new course, Introduction to Robotics, which combined the joy of Lego building with the challenge of using computer skills to create electronic Lego robots. The students embraced the challenge with energy and excitement, said instructor Angel Maldonado, who also teaches science and engineering in Orange County Public Schools.

“Working with these students who have learning differences is mostly the same as working with any students in a typical classroom,” he said. “They are eager to learn, they have the ability to learn, and they surely will learn when given the opportunity. And I’ve seen it happen every day here this summer.”

In Caring for Animals, another popular course, anthrozoology instructor Bryan Cushing said students not only get hands-on experience with a variety of animals, but also learn how to overcome anxiety, gain self-confidence and work with a team of other students.

“One of my biggest goals is for them to realize they really can do this work,” he said. “I had a student yesterday who was just terrified of snakes, but she wanted to try her best to hold one. And she did it!  So I look for things we can do to help students feel awesome about themselves in this class.”

From Broadway to Law & Order

Simone Ritchie’s Summer for Success courses took her from Broadway to the mysteries of the criminal mind. In the course All Things Broadway, she wrote and produced a play; in Criminology Today, she profiled a real criminal and told their story of crime and punishment. Finally, in Human Behavior & Society, she examined a critical social problem, posed a solution and presented her findings to the class.

It was no small workload for a three-week summer school session, but the rising high school senior from Scottsdale, Arizona, was undaunted.

“Yes, it is a lot, I guess,” she said. “But not when you’re having fun all along the way.”