Sneak Peek: High School Students Advance Toward College in Summer Program

Environmental scientist Stephen Macko recently taught an introductory oceanography class to 16 high school students through the UVA Advance program.

“These students are nothing short of amazing – excelling at challenging college coursework condensed into a single month – and they’re still high school kids,” said University of Virginia environmental sciences professor Stephen Macko of 16 students he recently taught through a summer program called “UVA Advance.” “They are exceptionally motivated.”

Sixty-five students participated in this summer’s Advance program. Nearly half were from Virginia, while 21 came from China, one was an Indian national from the United Arab Emirates and the rest hailed from several U.S. states. The students had to submit transcripts proving a 3.5 or better grade point average, a recommendation from a teacher, and a short essay on their motivations.

“UVA Advance prepares students for success in higher education,” said Brian Ullman, an operations director for UVA’s summer and special academic programs. “We engage participants both inside and outside of the classroom, including workshops and excursions that introduce students to the wide array of resources available to University students.”

The four-week program began in 2014 with the intent to give highly motivated high school students an advance on their higher education by attending intensive classes, living in dorms with international peers and earning college credit.

Emma Chang, a rising senior at Oakton High School in Northern Virginia, said she and her classmates developed close friendships by experiencing college life for the first time.

“We bonded so well,” she said. “I feel closer to the friends I’ve made here than I do to some people I’ve known for a long time at my school.”

Students in the program each choose a core course from four offered through the special curriculum, and one elective course from the regular Summer Session III. This allows the students to take one course with their high school-age peers, and one with regular UVA students. The students complete the program with six credits, transferable to colleges and universities around the U.S.

The core courses, which are small and intensive, included Macko’s “Introduction to Oceanography”; “Recent Revolutions in the Islamic World,” taught by politics lecturer W. Scott Harrop; “Genocide,” led by historian Jeffrey Rossman; and “Business Communication,” taught by management lecturer Janette Martin.

The topics of workshops – conducted separately from the classes – included time management and academic skills development, the college admissions process, finding undergraduate research opportunities, “Green Dot” training to safely intervene in concerning situations, choosing a major, using the libraries, interacting with other cultures, and taking advantage of study abroad opportunities.

The students lived in UVA’s residence halls, ate at the Observatory Hill Dining Hall and used the University’s libraries and recreational sports facilities. They also went on several guided excursions: picking peaches at Carter Mountain Orchard; experiencing the Poplar Ridge Challenge Course; a visit to Monticello; a Sherlock Holmes mystery play at the Heritage Theater Festival; and a dinner in the Rotunda’s Dome Room.

In the Oceanography course, Macko taught his students about plate tectonics, pollution of the seas, marine mammals, the food chain and more. He also took the students to the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, where they examined 15th-century maps of the world, to gain perspective on how early explorers’ knowledge of land forms and the sea changed and influenced history.

“I challenged the students to learn on their own with projects that required active thought and verification, and they took that challenge beyond the levels I expected,” Macko said.

“Professor Macko has so many interesting stories about his own travels and research, and he showed us so many interesting artifacts – wooly mammoth hair, fossils from around the world, animal skulls. It’s crazy all the things he’s collected,” Chang said. “It was a great experience to have such a knowledgeable, engaging, and passionate professor. UVA has always been on my list of colleges, and participating in UVA Advance gave me a great taste of life on Grounds, which only makes me more interested in attending the University.”

Another student in Macko’s class, Chen Chen from the southwest China city of Chongqing, said the Advance program puts UVA among his top choices for higher education in the United States; in fact, it’s his “dream school” because of the University’s academic strengths, including environmental sciences, the field in which he’d like to major.

“I’m interested in learning about the greater world around me, and this experience gave me a chance to do that,” he said. “In Professor Macko’s class, I learned much about the oceans, and how little we really know about the oceans. This was a very valuable class.”

He also enjoyed interacting with U.S. students, and experiencing the learning styles here. “Professor Macko pointed the way, but we had to learn on our own,” Chen said. “It is about learning to walk instead of being taught to walk. A good university makes you feel at home. Because of my positive experience, I think, yes, UVA is my home. This has been the most amazing time in my life.”

Media Contact

Fariss Samarrai

University News Associate Office of University Communications