High schoolers learn leadership skills and live college life at Butler’s immersive camp

A man with a beard and glasses talks to students.
Alexander Carter, an assistant professor of strategic communication at Butler University, gives feedback to BU: BeReal students during a sports media promotion session. Carter was a first-generation college student, and he said he wishes he had a college immersion camp like BU: BeReal in high school. (Haley Miller / Chalkbeat)

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On a recent Wednesday well into summer vacation, Indiana high school students sat in a college classroom and brainstormed how they set the tone in their communities.

“I would say, be the best leader you can,” a student said, “so everyone can follow your good example.”

That day, the students considered not just how to lead others to success, but how to succeed themselves. They were attending Butler University’s BU: BeReal camp, a college immersion experience designed to introduce high schoolers to college life and give them the tools to thrive there.

One of BU: BeReal’s defining features is how it provides scholarships for students who are from low-income backgrounds or will be first-generation college students. For a week on Butler’s campus, they live in a dorm, learn about different areas of study, and get accustomed to the idea of daily life as a college student. It’s one effort among many to boost not just college-going, but college completion, something many Indiana students struggle with.

But the grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. that funds tuition assistance for 58% of the campers will end next year, leaving administrators looking for ways to sustain a central part of the camp’s mission. (Chalkbeat receives funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc.)

A group of students work around a pot of food
Students in Butler University's BU: BeReal camp try out different seasoning ratios during a session on cooking and health science. A focus of the session was healthy eating habits. (Haley Miller / Chalkbeat)

“Some may have never set foot on a college campus before,” Associate Director of Camps Administration Jessica Meister said. “Their parents or grandparents haven’t gone through the college process, so it’s really important that we provide learning opportunities and experiences.”

By the end of this summer, 136 high schoolers will have gone through Butler’s program.

Camps like this one, such as the Summer Success Camp at the University of Indianapolis, arose out of the Lilly Endowment Inc.’s initiative to increase Indiana’s higher education enrollment rate — which hovered around 53% in 2020, 2021, and 2022 — and the number of adults with a postsecondary credential.

During BU: BeReal, which has separate weeks for underclassmen and upperclassmen, students explore different subjects to understand what pathways they can take in college. The sessions range from philosophy to business to dance improv. They also hear survival tips from current students.

“A lot of students my age, like they know they want to go to college,” said camper Wura Olorunfemi, a rising senior at Anderson High School. “But they also don’t know how to do it.”

A student with a white sweater stirs food in a pan while two other students watch.
BU: BeReal campers cook chipotle turkey tacos. The camp is designed to give students a sample of different disciplines. (Haley Miller / Chalkbeat)

The staff are exploring funding options for 2026, so they can continue providing robust financial assistance, Meister said. They have talked with administration as well as considered outside grants.

“I want to keep the focus and the ethos of the camp the same, so serving our 21st Century, first-generation college students who have been traditionally underserved by higher ed, but also being fully integrated with students from all over the state of Indiana,” Meister said.

Many of the academic sessions serve two purposes: They give students a sample of the discipline, as well as a concept or tangible skill to take away.

In an afternoon session focused on cooking and health science, students learned how to make chipotle turkey tacos. At each table, kids sauteed the ground turkey and experimented with seasoning.

They took turns taste-testing. Overcooked and not enough salt, one group agreed. They threw in the salt, plus garlic and a little water.

“I’ve learned to adapt to new people,” said Nicolette Dukehart, a rising junior at North Central High School. “Normally I’m with the same group of people, but now I’ve made more friends.”

Olorunfemi said the variety of sessions challenged her to try out new disciplines. In the social media session, for example, she got to think creatively.

“I want to be a doctor or a neurosurgeon, so that side of the world is kind of closed off to me,” Olorunfemi said. “I don’t usually let myself open myself up to that.”

Lots of students sit around tables.
BU: BeReal students attend leadership training on June 14. The camp aims to build high school students’ leadership skills while introducing them to the college experience. (Haley Miller / Chalkbeat)

Faculty members working at BU: BeReal said they saw how rewarding the experience was for students.

Alexander Carter, an assistant professor of strategic communication, was once a first-generation college student, like many of the campers. He said an experience like BU: BeReal helps kids realize there is a place for them in higher education.

“I had no idea what college was going to be like,” Carter said. “I heard these horror stories from teachers, like ‘they’re never going to let you do this in college and never let you do this in college.’ And I go to college, and it’s very different.”

In the future, Meister said, the staff hope to increase the number of weeks of the camp and serve hundreds of students each summer.

Haley Miller is a summer reporting intern covering education in the Indianapolis area. Contact Haley at hmiller@chalkbeat.org.

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