Fresh out of his sophomore year, Achintya Prasad arrived at the Mississippi Governor’s School. His counselor thought it would look good on his resume, and he didn’t have anything else to do.
He expected maybe 20 other students, probably not the type of people he would have anything in common with. But when he arrived at Poindexter Hall the first day, he found himself surrounded by more than a hundred young scholars.
None of them quite knew how the next three weeks would change their entire outlook on learning. And none of them knew that some of the people in that room would become their closest friends.
The Mississippi Governor’s School was established in 1981 as a way for highly gifted high school students to be challenged and prepare for college. Juniors and seniors from all over the state apply, and about 100 students, or scholars, as they are called, are admitted each year. The free program is sponsored by the state. For three weeks over the summer, they stay in campus dorms and get a taste of college life with housing, meals and everything else provided.
Prasad, now a high school senior, reflects positively on this experience.
“Going to Governor’s School really gives you good experience in seeing what kind of people are out there outside your hometown—seeing people that are like-minded but are also different from you, having new experiences to learn from.”
For many, it is the first time they’ve been away from their hometown. According to Dr. Royal Toy, director of the Governor’s School, it is a time for scholars to grow and broaden their views.
“When you take risks and you challenge yourself,” he says, “you learn more about who you are as a person, and you learn more about your integrity, you learn more about your capacity.”
While at the Governor’s School, students enroll in a major course for which they can receive honors college credit that will transfer to any university. Major classes change each year depending on faculty, but the Governor’s School generally offers topics that students may not otherwise have the opportunity to take.
According to Toy, past major courses have included Writing on Literary Humor, Programming Applications, Analysis of History through James Bond film and a wide range of diverse subjects. The teacher to student ratio is kept low, making it a valuable learning experience for each student. The classes challenge students’ thinking but are graded on a pass/fail basis to ensure that the focus stays on the learning process.
The program also allows scholars to participate in an interest class. These help students develop skills they normally wouldn’t. Past interest classes included fencing, cooking, ballroom dance and game theory.
Outside of major and interest classes, scholars can participate in activities such as service learning, leadership and recreational activities. Prasad remembers one particular activity that marked his experience at the Governor’s School. The scholars were all asked a series of deep personal or ethical questions and told to step across a line on the floor if they answered yes.
“It brought everyone closer together, and we had a deeper appreciation of everyone, I think.”
Dr. Heath Stevens, the professor in charge of that activity, was also a scholar at the Governor’s School in 1999. He came back the next year as an intern and has worked there every year since.
“Governor’s School is not just your summer camp,” he says.
Stevens still remembers the teacher who taught his major course, DNA and Human Cloning. He remembers being forced to think critically for the first time and participate in ethical discussions—much different from the typical high school experience.
“One of the things that traditional education currently does is it says, ‘come to school, sit in a classroom, learn everything that the instructor is telling you and then repeat it back on a test.’ Or, ‘learn how to fill in bubbles correctly so that you can take a test correctly.’ Governor’s School doesn’t operate that way,” says Toy.
Seeing firsthand the personal growth in students as a result of this key difference is what makes working with the Governor’s School so fulfilling for both Toy and Stevens.
“My favorite thing [as a faculty member] is actually to see these students do some critical thinking,” Stevens says, “to actually be able to feel safe to actually express their true opinion and say what they really think, and to see them grow personally and socially from when they move in as sort of quiet, timid, not sure what they can do and cannot do in terms of what they say with their beliefs, to the third week where they’re comfortable enough in my classes to openly debate other people in their class.”
These students, even with their differing opinions, often form long-lasting friendships at the Governor’s School, bonded by the formative experiences they have during the program. But more importantly, this three-week experience ignites something new inside of them. It encourages them to think deeply and push their limits, perhaps for the first time.
“If you really want to do some thinking, you really want to do some learning, thinking outside the box, the chance to express yourself creatively and critically,” Stevens says, “Governor’s School is the place to be. It’s much, much more than just a line on your resume.”