August brings a tsunami of excitement and energy to the Virginia Tech campus and the surrounding communities. While continuing students return to familiar grounds, new students experience the hustle and bustle of navigating the beginning of their Hokie experience.

However, for 168 new students, the journey to getting comfortable in their new environment began several weeks ago. These students chose not to wait until August but instead got a jump-start on college life when they arrived for Virginia Tech’s Summer Academy.  

Summer Academy is designed for incoming first-year and transfer students. The program allows them to take college courses and explore Virginia Tech prior to the start of the fall semester. It’s a unique opportunity that program director Michael Herndon believes more incoming students should consider. 

“This program allows students to get acclimated to the university experience in many ways, which can ease a lot of concerns that both students and their families have about starting college,” Herndon said. “The program prepares students for the academic expectations for the fall and spring terms — not to mention students who live on campus are allowed to move into their assigned fall residence space early.

Why spend your summer in Blacksburg? Herndon believes the real question is, "Why not?" Campus takes on a different look and feel during the summer as popular spots are less crowded and the normally highly trafficked walkways and roads are more open and accessible. For students in Summer Academy, it means space to grow into their new homes and learning environments. 

“I was so nervous at first,” said Edom Eshete, a first-year student and Clark Scholar majoring in building construction. “But as I met more people, I became less anxious and opened up. The classroom atmosphere made it easy for my classmates and I to work together and help one another.”

Summer Academy students customize their learning experience by selecting from more than a dozen tracks. Within those tracks, they can earn a maximum of six credit hours toward their undergraduate degrees. Class sizes are typically smaller in number and allow incoming students to connect closely with their instructors and classmates.

“The experience in the classroom has been great,” said Lauren Ruiz-Arenas, a Clark Scholar and general engineering major. “My professor puts himself on our level and gets really engaged in the lesson. He has a teaching method where he asks us a lot of questions, which makes us really think about the content.”

Smaller class sizes also allow instructors to change their teaching styles or even their locations. It’s not unusual for class to be held outdoors.

Field trips are another component of the Summer Academy experience. Whether the outings are for academic, social, or recreational purposes, they provide students with regular opportunities to survey the greater campus community and experience the beauty of Blacksburg and the New River Valley.  

“This was so much more than I expected,” said Eshete, of Springfield, Virginia. “I chose to participate in Venture Out and really loved the sunset hiking. I’d also go fishing in the Duckpond with my roommate, which was a lot of fun. I’ll never forget this experience.”

“I’m not really an outdoorsy person but it is so pretty here. One thing I’m getting used to is all the walking. Where I’m from, everyone just drives by car, But here, it’s like 15-minute walks everywhere," said Ruiz-Arenas, of Reston, Virginia.

Outdoor activities and social events are led by peer mentors, who serve as guides and help soften the landing of the college experience. Many are former Summer Academy participants and understand how daunting the embarking on this new chapter in life can be.

“My peer mentor is great,” said Valentina Ranz, a first-year student and Clark Scholar from Woodbridge, Virginia, studying engineering. “She has helped me make friends. We keep in touch through a group-meet, where she communicates about events and other things so we are never bored. She always has something for us to do.”

“They have things for us like ramen night and a tie-dye event, which are a lot of fun," said Ruiz. “When we have questions, they’re always available to answer them. It’s really nice to have a mentor who can help you with anything.”

Summer Academy at Virginia Tech launched in 2012. The program is part of the Summer and Winter Sessions division of Enrollment Management. Earlier this year, program leadership decided it was time for change, and beginning Sept. 1, Summer Academy will transition to its new name, Summer Start. Herndon said the new name will help boost enrollment as it better represents the program’s mission and value. 

“The main reason that we needed to rebrand is because of the notion that we were associated with K-12 education by the public,'' said Herndon. “Over the years, our office has received many inquiries about summer opportunities for elementary, middle, and high school students. Our target audience has always been incoming Virginia Tech students. I predict that the rebranding will attract students who otherwise would have overlooked us because of perceptions around the former name.”

To help solidify the new name, Herndon distributed a survey of potential names to this summer’s cohort of Summer Academy students. The students were given several options, including Summer Start, with the ability to write in their own suggestions. Summer Start received the highest number of votes.

 “With the rebranding, we have an opportunity to reset,” Herndon said. “Although I imagine that the main components of the program will remain intact, we have the chance to reflect upon what has worked well over the years. We also should look at what practices, if any, should be abandoned.”

The success of Summer Academy rests in every student who reports a smoother and less stressful transition from high school to college life. This is especially true for first-generation college students who, along with their families, may be overwhelmed by the experience Herndon said Summer Academy - now Summer Start - is designed for any incoming student looking to get a jump start on the college experience, and it takes a lot of moving parts to ensure that the program accomplishes its goals.

“To have a successful program, we rely on so many university partnerships across campus,” said Herndon.  “These campus partners include faculty and staff, Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid, the Student Success Center, Parking Services, Housing and Residence Life, Recreational Sports, College Access Collaborative, Undergraduate Admissions, Strategic Enrollment Communications and Marketing, the University Registrar, and so many other units. Without their support, we would not be able to offer a successful program.”

Incoming students thinking about participating in Summer Start 2023 are encouraged to check the interest box on the application for admission and complete the 2022-23 FAFSA once it opens Oct. 1. Financial aid and scholarships may be available to support summer 2023 enrollment. Savings programs such as a Virginia529 plan may be applied to tuition and fees; however, families are encouraged to check with their financial advisor about best options to support their students.


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