Campus watchers may notice some rather strange birds flocking to Northwestern each year for the summer season. These birds make just one appearance on campus, but their presence is pervasive in Evanston. They travel in packs; they have no "freshman 15" extra pounds, that is to speak of; they look happy and excited to be learning; and they are definately too fresh-faced to be undergraduates.
Here is what we know about the species. They are called, appropriately (and affectionately), "cherubs." They are from a land now very distant to most of us high school. And they congregate on campus every summer to take part in the National High School Institute (NHSI), now entering its 69th year at Northwestern.
The oldest and largest summer high school program at any university in the United States, NHSI offers these students immersion in one of eight programs of study, all at a college level and in a college setting. More than 850 of the nation's best high school students enroll each year in either the Coon-Hardy Debate Program, dance, journalism, junior statesmen, leadership and community involvement, music, radio/TV/film or theater arts.
The institute was founded in 1931 by Ralph B. Dennis, then dean of the School of Speech, and journalism student Floyd G. Arpan (J33, GJ34) "to bring together gifted young people and superior teachers in an atmosphere of affection, knowledge and trust," as Dennis put it.
What keeps students flocking to NHSI so many years later is the intense academic level of the program, says Barbara Reeder, administrative director for the NHSI in the School of Speech. It is a depth of study that is not usually available to high schoolers.
"NHSI is complete immersion," she says. "Probably even more immersion than [the students] would have in their college, because we are in charge of them 24 hours, every day. We have morning, afternoon and evening classes. Not many universities would give them an evening class, but Northwestern doesn't stop at 5 o'clock."
Most of the NHSI programs run from late June to late July, a period of five weeks. The "cherubs" a nickname bequeathed to generations of NHSI youths by former School of Speech professor Garrett H. Leverton, who once spotted a group of the high school students and commented, "There they go, just like little cherubs" typically start their days at 8:30 or 9 a.m. and are kept active until as late as 10 p.m. on certain evenings. It's a rigorous schedule, to be sure, but you won't hear any complaints out of these angels.
"I'm very, very happy with the program," says Kimberly Orellana, a high school senior from Boston enrolled in the 1999 leadership and community involvement program. "It's very exciting. The lectures are very helpful, we do a lot of activities, skill-building and hands-on work. And I've met so many people, I have friends from everywhere now!"
Nolan Reese, a 1999 radio/TV/film cherub, applied to the program because of its promise of practical film experience. The Fort Washington, Pa., high school student wasn't disappointed.
"The program said we would work with real film, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to get hands-on experience, which was what I was looking for," says Reese. "I've always wanted to be a filmmaker, and now I'm even more sure."
The program's role in shaping future career choices has a long legacy and numerous famous cherub alumni to show for it. Celebrities include actors Cloris Leachman (S48), Noah Wyle and David Schwimmer (S88); the late television reporter/commentator/producer Charles Kuralt; CBS news correspondent Barry Petersen (J70, GJ72); and the late syndicated columnist and author Joan Beck (J45, GJ47). Even political figures like U.S. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (S62, H92) and Theodore C. Sorenson, former special counsel to President Kennedy, were cherubs.
Former journalism cherub Chuck Jaffe, now a columnist for the Boston Globe, says it was his time at NHSI that steered him onto his current career path. "The experience solidified in my mind that this was what I wanted to do," he says. "I think it was just being immersed in journalism [that I enjoyed most about the program]. It was also a social experience, and that was very good for me."
Jaffe is eager to give back to the program, so he returned to a Medill classroom last summer to instruct the new class of cherubs in the art of writing columns. "I gained immeasurably from my cherub experience," he says. "So, I'm happy to be a part of [it]."
Angelo Henderson, a 1979 journalism cherub and a 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner for the Wall Street Journal, sees it pretty much the same way. "I learned a lot about journalism my cherub summer and figured out that I liked this thing called reporting, this thing called writing," says Henderson, who gave a speech about his Pulitzer Prize to the 1999 class of journalism cherubs. "It was a great summer, and I made lifelong friends."
It's no wonder, then, that thousands of students from all over the globe clamor to participate in NHSI each summer. But despite its size, the National High School Institute is one of the toughest university-sponsored summer programs to get into. Students must submit an application and résumé of pertinent experience in their subjects, and most divisions require an interview and/or audition as well.
If the program directors get their way, it will become even more competitive in the years to come.
"Our standards are already very high," says Reeder, "but our first goal, I think, is to get even better students, and not necessarily more."
Roger Boye (GJ71), once a cherub and now assistant dean at Medill, is also director of the NHSI journalism program. From his perspective, the program is "maxed out" with the 88 students it accommodated last summer.
"If you walk into the writing rooms, you'll see every square inch is being used," he says. "We really just don't have any more space. The largest group we've had since I've been director was 99, and that was a mistake. None of the students knew each other, and we had a lot of problems that summer."
The NHSI directors agree that summer 1999's cherub enrollment was ideal for the needs of Northwestern, for the students in attendance and for the facilities available. "There is a nice intimacy and lots of personal attention available to students in small[er] programs," explains Robin Lakes, director of the dance program, which accepts 32 students.
"If there's growth numbers-wise in NHSI in the future, it would have to be in sister programs or related programs in other areas," says the School of Speech's Barbara Reeder, "but not growing the programs we already have."
Indeed, since NHSI decentralized in fall 1997, many such programs have come and gone. The institute's diverse offerings had formerly been under the Northwestern Summer Session umbrella before each school became responsible for its own NHSI division. Newer programs such as dance and leadership have flourished, while forensics/debate has had to merge with the Coon-Hardy Debate Program, and engineering sciences is no longer offered.
But a few eggs must be broken to make that proverbial omelet, and Boye says the decentralization works "a thousand times better" for NHSI's budget: "What in effect happened was that Summer Session financed the weaker divisions from the stronger divisions. Now [each school is] able to use any budget surpluses toward the endowment."
The larger the endowment, the greater the ability of NHSI to attract those "better" students Reeder speaks of. But aside from upping the quality of students who attend the institute, another primary goal in NHSI's future is to increase its use as a recruitment tool for the University.
This approach seems to be working. "I chose NHSI because it's Northwestern, and I want to go to Northwestern," says Michelle Angeleri, a 1999 leadership and community involvement cherub from Arizona.
Reeder adds that one effective recruitment device is to create new, more specialized programs such as the one for technical theater, a division of theater arts that started three years ago for only 10 students.
Some students, who were selected as cherubs but fear they might not make the cut for Northwestern admission otherwise, hope the summer program will bolster their chances to return as undergraduates.
"I'd really like to go to Northwestern," says radio/TV/film's Reese. "I just don't know if my grades are good enough."
And for still other students, a summer with NHSI helps them decide whether an undergraduate education at Northwestern is something they truly want to pursue. "I was a cherub for two summers," says Michael Gottlieb (WCAS99), who participated in the debate division. "It was huge for me. It was the main reason I came to Northwestern, and it was the main reason I decided to debate in college."
His decision turned out to be a good one. The Lawrence, Kan., native was half of the winning team that captured the National Debate Tournament championship for Northwestern in 1998 and 1999, snagging the tournament's top individual speaker award two years running. He is now coaching debate at Harvard.
Erwin Chemerinski (S75) was a debate cherub in 1970 who would also go on to win the NDT top speaker award and then serve as director for NHSI's debate division. "I had a terrific experience as a cherub," he says, "and had I not been a cherub, I would not have even applied to Northwestern, much less gone there.
"I was committed to going to college outside the Midwest and Chicago, and it was entirely my experience as a cherub that made me decide to go to Northwestern," continues Chemerinski, now the Sydney M. Irmas professor of public interest law, legal ethics and political science at the University of Southern California.
Not all cherubs, however, go on to such spectacular success in their area of interest after a summer with NHSI. Indeed, many have been known to leave their chosen field altogether, deciding it's simply not for them. That, says Reeder, is one of the purposes of the program.
"What we hope the students take out of the program is what they need to take out of it," she says. "For many, it's 'Yes, I want to apply and come to Northwestern,' and, for others, it's the opposite.
"It's a view, a year [or so] early, of what it's going to be like when they get out of high school. And a handful of them decide, for instance, that they want to be in dance education instead of being a prima ballerina like they thought. So it saves their parents a little bit of money, it saves the student a little bit of angst, and it saves the rest of us the grief of trying to teach a student who shouldn't be in that field in the first place."
In other words, the National High School Institute gives the cherubs their wings and helps them decide how they want to use them when they're ready.
"What the students end up taking out of the program," continues Reeder, "is a genuine knowledge of whatever they've studied and a genuine appreciation of Northwestern, whether they end up coming here or not." (National High School Institute)
Marisa Kula (J00) was an intern for Northwestern during the summer of 1999.