For Mitch Simpson, governor’s school was the first step toward a future.
After attending the North Carolina Governor’s School in the summer of 1967 as a rising high school senior, Simpson earned the Morehead-Cain Scholarship — a full ride merit-based grant — and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“There is no question that governor’s school opened doors,” Simpson says. “One of the reasons I was given consideration for the Morehead was because of the program.”
He passed the same conviction to all three of his children. His elder son, Andrew, is a 2004 alumnus and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. His other son, Aaron, attended in 2007 and graduated from Appalachian
State University. And finally, his daughter, Ellie, went through governor’s school in 2010 and also headed to Appalachian State.
The Simpson family is just one of many examples of alumni who remember governor’s school as their true initiation into academia.
Tom Winton coordinates the North Carolina Governor’s School and says students are immediately immersed into a learning community with other students from across the state.
At the governor’s school, each student takes an Area I class comparable to that of a college major. These areas include English, art, choral music, instrumental music, mathematics, natural science, social science and theater arts.
For many of the gifted students, it’s their first true intellectual challenge.
“They learn to question everything and to encounter a broad range of topics and then explore them more deeply than they typically can in high school,” Winton says. “It’s definitely at a rigor level on par with or greater than many college courses.”
“I know of no other program in North Carolina that offers such a valuable educational jewel.”
North Carolina was the first state to offer governor’s school. The program began in 1963 and was supported by Gov. Terry Sanford as an educational initiative for gifted students. As of 2015, related programs are offered in more than 20 other states, from California to Vermont.
There are variations in length and costs, but all the governor’s schools are academic sleepaway camps, and most require tuition.
Unlike in most summer camps, students aren’t asked to tie
knots or learn how to canoe at governor’s school. Instead, they are challenged to question and defend their beliefs, and are exposed to contemporary ideas they never would’ve come across otherwise. Each student is engaged and filled with intellectual curiosity. As in Simpson’s case, the camps mold students into open-minded and passionate individuals.
Governor’s school isn’t necessarily about schoolwork. There are homework assignments and projects, but there are no grades
or academic credit. The purpose of these academic camps is to enrich students, not evaluate them. These camps aim to inspire gifted students and provide them the groundwork for college and the future.
Each governor’s school has a director who oversees the camp. Most are confident their respective governor’s school helps students achieve in college.
Dr. George Keller is the director of the Alabama Governor’s School. The sessions are held at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, andlast 13 days. The official program began in 1988, making Alabama the 24th state to have a nationally recognized governor’s school.
Keller has been the director since 2000. He says that governor’s school gives students the chance to meet other high achievers in the state, similar to that of a college experience.
During his tenure, there haven’t been any radical changes to the school, except that the program now electronically produces the application process. The goals of the school are constant — have fun and create an environment students would not experience anywhere else.
“Me and the other professors are constantly impressed by how gifted the students are,” Keller says. “They really bring a lot of excitement and a lot of different opinions. A lot of times they’re kind of locked into their own opinions, and they learn from others to consider different points of view like you would have to do in college.
“They don’t necessarily accept them, but at least they learn to listen to them.”
Keller’s views are shared by other directors across the country, including Dr. Paul Thomas, who directs the Virginia Governor’s School of Humanities and Visual Performing Arts. The governor’s school is held at Radford University in Radford, Virginia, and lasts four weeks.
When speaking to high school sophomores and juniors interested in governor’s school, Thomas says he uses testimonials of past students who have enrolled in prominent colleges.
“The thing that comes across most clearly in what former governor’s school students say is that it was a life-changing experience,” Thomas says. “I see that time and time again. These students come here with a lot of other people like them, functioning at this really high academic level, and it’s this big mix of exciting energy.”
“They come here and create actual intellectual and artistic work.”
At the Alabama Governor’s School, preparation for college is a key focus. There are programs on how to apply for certain colleges, how to study in college and how to be presentable during merit scholarship interviews.
“(The students) have a lot of their day planned, but not completely,” Keller says, discussing the school’s college-like atmosphere. “So there’s a little bit of independence.”
He says that when he discusses governor’s school, he intentionally promotes it as a college-like experience.
In the humanities, the students get to pick classes they want to
take, similar to that of a college student. All the courses are taught by Radford instructors.
“We don’t bring the level of the material down because they’re high school students,” Thomas says. “We actually teach them as if they were college students so they get a sense of what kind of work will be expected of them in college.”
Transition to College
True to Thomas and Keller’s sentiments, governor’s school alumni who are currently in college feel more prepared for the rigorous environment.
Keith Jones, now a senior communications major at UNC- CH, attended the North Carolina Governor’s School in 2011.
Before attending governor’s school, Jones says, he was terrified because he had not been away from home for an extended period of time and felt as if he were losing his summer to more schooling.
But, Jones adds that governor’s school presented a variety of ideas and lifestyles he was not accustomed to. The experience allowed him to grow as a person.
“The opportunities I had at governor’s school allowed me to explore different ideas, develop friendships and learn how to live on my own,” Jones says. “They were all things that allowed for an easier transition into UNC.”
Jones’ opinions are shared by students who attended the Arkansas Governor’s School — a program that followed North Carolina’s model and was established in 1980.
After attending the Arkansas Governor’s School in 2012 and graduating from high school in 2013, Guneev Sharma enrolled in
Hendrix College, the campus where the governor’s school is held.
At governor’s school, his Area I was social science. And now, he is a junior majoring in political science and minoring in economics. This past summer, he served as a residential adviser for the 2015 session of the Arkansas Governor’s School.
One of the main reasons he applied for governor’s school was the opportunity to improve his college applications. He says the academics were more strenuous than at a regular high school. He had social science classes and a philosophy class, and he attended several academic seminars.
“Between college and governor’s school, I’d say the difficulty is about the same,” Sharma says. “The kids that attend are the best and the brightest, and it gives them a chance to be academically challenged before entering college.”
Sharma adds that when he entered Hendrix College, he already knew what to expect. He felt more advanced than the other freshmen because he had lived in a college dorm and taken classes taught by professors.
Sarah Vaughn, who now attends Arkansas State University-Beebe, attended the Arkansas Governor’s School in 2014. Her Area I was English, and the classes were in four major areas — literary analysis, cultural analysis, poetry and short stories.
She was able to write her own poetry and study topics such as Marxism and flash fiction.
Governor’s school opened her eyes the same way college does for freshmen in their first weeks on campus.
“(Governor’s school) got me away from home for six weeks.” Vaughn says. “I had to live with someone I didn’t know. In a public high school, you meet a lot of different people and there is diversity, but at governor’s school you get a whole different view of all kinds of cultures.”
After she gets an associate’s degree in liberal arts, Vaughn plans on transferring to the University of Arkansas and double majoring in journalism and English. She says she uses what she learned at governor’s school and applies it to her college classes.
Vaughn, Sharma and Jones all believe governor’s school has helped prepare them for the future. Governor’s school alumni who have already started careers hold similar beliefs.
Several alumni have experienced high levels of success in their respective careers, and they believe governor’s school played an important role.
After attending UNC-CH, Simpson went on to attend Cambridge University for a year. Next, he studied at Duke Divinity School at Duke University and received a doctorate at Florida State. And for the past 25 years, he has served as the pastor for University Baptist Church in Chapel Hill.
Other North Carolina Governor’s School alumni include actor and comedian Ken Jeong, most known for his roles in “Community” and “The Hangover” trilogy, and current U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Governor’s schools in other states have produced impressive alumni, as well.
Amanda Tapley, a 2005 alumna of the Alabama Governor’s School, attended Samford University and majored in music and pre- medicine. In 2008, she won Miss Alabama. And in 2009, she placed in the top 15 for the Miss America competition held in Las Vegas. She even has her own Wikipedia page.
Now, Tapley is an emergency medicine resident at the University of Alabama-Birmingham Hospital. Also a classically trained pianist, Tapley was a performer for the 2015 Alabama Governor’s School opening ceremony.
Tapley says she owes much of her success to her governor’s school experience.
“(The Alabama Governor’s School) provided my earliest direct exposure to the medical field,” Tapley says. “It helped solidify my decision to become a physician. I am so thankful for the school’s continued dedication to high school students and giving them a head start on their careers.”
Similar feelings are shared by Dr. David Reiley, who attended the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Sciences in 1986. He majored in astrophysics at Princeton University and returned to the school as a physics teaching assistant in 1989 and 1991. He later switched career fields and earned a doctorate in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The governor’s school exposed me to some terrific intellectual material from molecular biology to special relativity,” Reiley says. “And I also got exposed to state-of-the art laboratory equipment where we got firsthand experience in experimental research.”
For 11 years he taught economics at Vanderbilt
University, Northwestern University and the University of Arizona. Reiley has also been employed by Google, Yahoo! and Pandora — places where
he has developed an expertise on measuring the effects of advertising on consumer behavior.
And now, he is the president of the PGSS Alumni Association. Like Tapley, Reiley used his governor’s school experience to prepare for the future.
“My classes (at Princeton University) were extremely hard,” Reiley says. “A lot of the material would go over my head as well as over the heads of most of my classmates. So my governor’s school experience helped me keep my morale up when the going got really tough.”
Reiley’s thoughts are no different than the beliefs of many other people who have been associated with the summer program.
Whether they are a director, a student or a professional, alumni from across the nation hold governor’s school close to their heart.
For Simpson and his family in particular, the experience changed their life. He and most other alumni will always agree — there is hardly a comparison to the governor’s school program.
“There was nothing ever in my life after those weeks like the governor’s school,” Simpson says. “I loved Carolina, I loved Cambridge, I loved Duke and I loved Florida State — great experiences.
“Nothing can touch the rarefied air of governor’s school.”