It didn't take long for 150 high school students in classes this month at Kansas University to reach a discouraging conclusion: College is hard.
"The first night we got here, we had homework," said Afrita Davis, a 16-year-old from Coffeyville who will start her junior year in the fall.
But the students, who are at KU for the 15th annual Kansas Regents Honors Academy, handled the overwhelming pressure in true college form. First, they complained.
"We hear the typical things: All the assignments are due at the same time; there's so much work," said Mark Nesbitt-Daly, co-director of the academy. "We get to say, 'Welcome to college.' It's not high school anymore. That's a really great lesson for them to learn."
Then, they gritted their teeth and dug in their heels. The work they've produced has impressed academy faculty.
"They're undoubtedly a brighter-than-average cadre," said David Besson, KU associate professor of physics and astronomy who is teaching the academy's core class.
The students haven't just learned about the origins and meaning of the expanding universe, the academic focus of this year's academy, which runs from June 9 to Saturday. They're absorbing social lessons as well, like how it feels to volunteer at a soup kitchen for the homeless and what it's like to be away from Mom and Dad for more than a week at a time.
"I've seen kids just metamorphosize in the four weeks," said program co-director Sandra Wick, who has been involved with the academy for all three of its trips to KU.
Cream of the crop
Academy students came to KU from towns large and small across Kansas. They were nominated by their high school counselors and then competed based on an original essay, grade-point average, class standing, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities and teacher recommendations.
Participants, who will be either high school juniors or seniors in the fall, can earn up to six hours of college credit if they choose to pay tuition. The academy rotates to a different regents campus each summer.
Everyone must take Besson's core class, "Not with a bang but a whimper: the end of the universe blues." Students then pick a second course that explores the academy's theme through the lens of either art history, communication studies, physics, psychology, political science or religious studies.
Although academy students represent the state's best and brightest accustomed to getting straight A's or close to it they say the past three weeks have been challenging.
"You actually have to think about it," said 16-year-old Joe Sparacino of Salina, who will be a senior in the fall.
Some academy students have discovered they might have to adjust their study habits when they get to college.
"I was up until four o'clock this morning ... and was late to class because I had to write my speech," Davis said.
But then not every late-night activity has had such a scholarly bent.
"We stay up real late playing cards and watching TV," Calabro said.
Students have had dance parties and a cookout at Clinton Lake. On Saturday, they caught the Eternal Egypt exhibit at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. They're planning a star-gazing trip complete with telescopes and binoculars for an evening this week. And they've volunteered a few mornings at Jubilee Caf
Students will graduate on Saturday. Nesbitt-Daly hopes that, whether participants attend KU after graduation or not, their time on campus and in Lawrence will help eradicate misconceptions about the city in other parts of the state.
"This sort of program can help break down some of those prejudices. These kids can take back facts about what Lawrence is like and what KU's like," he said. "I think that's good for the state. I think it will help Kansas understand itself."