As schools everywhere are faced with the dilemma of cancelling summer programs amid the pandemic, ‘High School, High Scholar,’ known as '(HS)2' at Colorado Rocky Mountain School, or CRMS, in Carbondale is going virtual.
(HS)2 participants are part of a special group of high-achieving, minority high school students from cities across the country, including Denver, New Orleans, Fort Worth and New York City. After a rigorous application process their freshman year, they spend three summers, tuition-free, on the idyllic boarding school campus at CRMS. For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve seen anything like Mt. Sopris.
High school senior Veronique Mushagalusa Bijouy said she’ll miss exploring the Rocky Mountains this summer.
“Going out with my friends and kayaking and rock climbing like those activities, they make us become closer,” she said. “I’m really sad that we're not going to have that.”
A typical summer at (HS)2 includes five weeks of math, science, writing and college counseling as well as outdoor activities and extracurriculars like silversmithing and fused glass. Bijouy said it’s something she looks forward to every year.
“(HS)2 is a place I came to realize that it doesn't matter where you came from or your skin color,” Bijouy said. “They just welcome you and they make you feel special.”
The STEM-based summer enrichment program was founded in 2007 in partnership with the Aspen Science Center and part-time Aspen residents Mollie and Garland Lasater. (HS)2 Executive Director Annie Oppenheim said she started working with the college access program in 2016 as a co-teacher and residential assistant, living in the dorms with the kids.
“They just come and meet fellow students from places where they've never been before,” she said. “They realize how much they have in common because of this drive that they have to attain this goal of higher education.”
Like most of her peers at (HS)2, Bijouy will be the first in her family to attend college. She hopes to be a dental hygienist.
“I really want to open my own pathway and go to college,” she said. “Seeing how my mom is struggling hurts me and I want to provide her with help so that we can live a good life too.”
Before coming to the United States in 2016, Bijouy and her family had to flee the threat of violence in The Democratic Republic of the Congo. She spent five years living in a refugee camp in Uganda.
“We used to go to school, but not every day because in Uganda they make our parents pay for school,” she said. “My mom really didn't have that much money to pay for my four brothers and me to attend.”
This will be Bijouy’s last summer at (HS)2. She said she’ll be attending over Zoom from her bedroom in Fort Worth, Texas.
“I’m really grateful that we have the program overall, but it's not going to be the same,” she said. “Especially this year since I’m applying to college and I really need all the help I could get.”
Bijouy said she was glad to learn that (HS)2 will be continuing their usual college counseling remotely.
“We are making sure that, above all else, we are still supporting the kids in learning all they need to about college,” Oppenheim said. “That includes creating a college list, writing personal statements and understanding how to apply for different financial aid packages and scholarships.”
Oppenheim said this summer’s program will be a week shorter and it will no longer include science and extracurriculars like music, but she said they’re working hard to provide the students with an enriching online experience.
“I’ve tried to reframe my thinking from feeling like, ‘Oh, this is such a bummer,’” Oppenheim said, “to ‘How lucky are we that we can still offer our students something and support them in some capacity?’”
Oppenheim said (HS)2 is doing additional fundraising to be able to provide students with critical resources like Chromebook laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots. She said they’re also hoping to record their math, writing and college counseling classes over Zoom so that they’re available to students 24/7.
“There are any number of factors that might make it really hard for certain students to learn from home,” she said. “Perhaps they don't have a quiet space in their house to join a class at 9 a.m. or their parent is an essential worker and so they're in charge of taking care of their three younger siblings.”
When Oppenheim asked Bijouy and the other students in a survey what would be most helpful during virtual programming, she said that more than anything, they wanted emotional support.
“(HS)2 became a secure home for me in this country because when we came here, I didn't know anybody,” Bijouy said. “When I went to the program, people who I didn’t even know welcomed me and they made me feel at home.”
Oppenheim said they’re going to match students with peer and faculty mentors, have cooking classes and talent shows over Zoom, whatever it takes to help students feel connected. They’re even planning a remote commencement ceremony for the third-year students at the end of the summer. But she realizes there’s no substitute for bringing everyone together in the Rocky Mountains.
For now, Bijouy, Oppenheim and the rest of the (HS)2 community are making the most of a difficult situation and looking forward to when they can be reunited.