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My Teen Campus

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I didn't sign up for this, but here they are. Dozens of teenagers are bopping around our fine residential college campus this summer.

Sure, I can see a certain appeal.

While, for parents, common teen sightings are of ethereal figures in hallways vanishing behind bedroom doors, seeming more like the shadowy Night Stalker figures Carl Kolchak chased down abandoned L.A. city streets than college-bound scholars, I am seeing something different here in Hartsville, S.C., this summer.

For whatever reason, and as crazy as it may seem to their neighbors, parents have an unassailable faith in the "creative" positive energy of that over-the-top costumed adolescent holed up in the basement practicing vicey chic (thank-you, Ms. Perry). So, they seek out opportunities to nurture their child's talents in myriad ways: private lessons, clubs, community service projects, jobs.

The fact is, although children and neighbors and even some school teachers don't necessarily want to admit it, parents usually know their kids very well. And, if young teens do, indeed, have a promising spark at home, on college campuses they become Zambelli fireworks.

Unfortunately for many admissions counselors, the young adults and parents that enter college welcome centers are the same stressed and squabbling family members about which teachers and neighbors have been "tsk tsking" for years.

College admissions consultant, Dr. Sandra J. Eller, a registered psychologist with the University of Rochester Medical Center, astutely notes in a column published this summer by Messenger Post Media, that "it is often overlooked that the very process of applying to college is, in and of itself, a significant transition in the parent-student relationship."

There's a lot on the line. College is a big deal. So is adulthood. For independence-craving teenagers, it is also unknown territory. Selective colleges are selective because they reject students. It's hard to be at one's best under these circumstances.

If the standard practice makes for a bumpy ride, why not put the horse before the cart and let the college drive for awhile? It is not a law of nature that one must be a prospective student before becoming a college student.

Turning the arbitrary notion around, faculty and students at Coker College have invited teens and pre-teens to campus to explore not only college life, but academic subjects that matter to them now.

With faculty and college students as teachers and mentors, twenty-some youngsters are learning the art and craft and science of theater production. The program provides a broad spectrum of theater instruction through games, improvisation, music, dance and rehearsals and before the summer is out will culminate in two public, fully staged performances of Annie Jr.

Another fifty children are immersed in a six-week reading-based curriculum provided by the Children's Defense Fund. The new Freedom School, in its inaugural year at Coker, is being run almost entirely by Coker College students and includes as, an integral requirement, weekly meetings with parents to ensure broad family involvement.

Still others -- motivated high school students -- are working one-on-one with Coker faculty members as science interns working on real research projects in biology, chemistry and computer science through a six-week local program sponsored by Monsanto Fund.

Finally, students from all over the region are participating in various summer camp skills-building programs specializing in everything from soccer, basketball and baseball to modern dance. While teens come to improve their performance, parents appreciate the contact the programs provide for their children to work with committed college faculty and coaches because along with physical skills, the youngsters begin to learn to relate to the demeanor and expectations of educators at the next level.

While each opportunity is wholly different from the others, each sheds light, reduces fears and engages students in doing what students do best -- learning freely. The lesson we have learned is that when colleges open their doors to local children, local children, college students and the community all benefit.

It may not be exactly what I signed up for, but, for this college president, my teen campus looks just right.