Budding Careers

By Shelley Mitchell

Camp TURF (Tomorrow’s Undergraduates Realizing the Future) is a two-week residential summer academy for upcoming 9th- and 10th-grade students in Oklahoma. Housed at Oklahoma State University, the academy exposes students to careers in horticulture and landscape architecture with hands-on activities in different areas each day. Selected students are mainly from first-generation, minority, or low-income families. The main goals of the academy beyond an introduction to horticulture career paths are to show students the significance of math and science outside of school, and to give them the confidence that college is within their means.

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Money Matters
Beginning in 2010, the first academy was sponsored by the State Regents for Higher Education through a competitive grant. Funding, however, was pulled by state legislators in 2017. To continue the academy, sponsors have been sought and found in a variety of different fields. Support is requested from horticulture-related companies and enthusiasts, state-wide groups with educational or philanthropic goals, and science- or youth-oriented organizations. Having participants from across the state broadens the search for potential donors. Local sponsors include the philanthropic arm of the rural electric cooperative (financial support) and a local fast-food restaurant (food for two lunches). State financial supporters include the state horticulture society and the education arm of an oil conglomerate. National financial supporters include a horticulture producer, a box-store grant program, and a scientific instrument producer. For the coming summer, county Master Gardener groups have started a statewide challenge to sponsor at least one student (approximately $1,500).

Finding Participants
Student recruitment was originally begun through posters sent to all schools within the state (representing all of the summer academies sponsored by the Regents). Now recruitment occurs through county extension offices via weekly newspaper columns and contact with 4H groups. The camp director’s job involves a lot of state-wide travel to youth science and agriculture conferences, so information and applications for Camp TURF are distributed at each one. Facebook groups of Oklahoma science and math educators are also used to disseminate information about the academy. Applications only ask for basic demographic information, plus next year’s school grade and the school the student is attending. There is an optional question on race/ethnicity to determine minority status, and a question to determine if applicants are part of the Oklahoma Promise program (which provides free tuition to Oklahoma students whose families make less than $50,000/year). There is also a question as to whether either of the parents went to college (to determine first-generation status). We do not ask for GPA or letters of recommendation, as those are seen as obstacles to the target demographic. Students are accepted from public, private, or home schools. Students not in the target demographic are also selected—especially if they are from rural counties—to increase the diversity in the academy.

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Resourceful Spending
The total budget allowed in the original grant was $625 per student per week to cover food, housing, transportation, and supplies. To keep costs low and still allow for fun outings on some evenings and over the weekend, creativity was a necessity. Students are housed in residential suites on campus, even though it is a couple of dollars more per day than traditional dorm housing; the suites have common rooms and a small kitchen. The kitchen is stocked with breakfast foods, which saves money over using a campus cafeteria for $9 a person each day. We also stock bread, peanut butter, jelly, and fruit for students who need extra food between meals (e.g., teenage athletes with higher caloric needs). Lunches are large sub sandwiches, pizza, or ingredients to make sandwiches, and chips and cookies. Each student is given a water bottle to be filled at each meal and used throughout the day, to save the cost and waste of bottled water. By saving money on breakfast and lunch, we are able to go to area restaurants for dinner, which many of the students had not experienced.

The camp directors draw no salary for the academy beyond their normal pay, and all professors and industry volunteers lead activities (two- to four-hour sessions) for no pay. We do pay for supplies and try to be as efficient as possible, using leftover supplies from labs, growing our own plants for cloning and grafting, and using existing non-consumable materials (tools for pruning, etc.). One session deals with agriculture communications, and the students film an episode for the television show Oklahoma Gardening, so any expenses for those materials are covered. At the end of the academy session, students write thank-you notes to all volunteers. We also use photos we’ve taken over the course of the academy and make collages to give to the volunteers. The only paid staff members are the overnight counselors (one male, one female), who are paid $2,000 for the two weeks—good pay that makes them want to work every year, saving money on required driver training ($150 each, only necessary once per person), and saving time and effort on counselor training (they already know the routines and expectations).

A Good Mix
Originally, the camp was for juniors and seniors in high school, but even with signed rules, we had problems with relationships and physical contact. By enlisting freshman and sophomores, we have not had to send anyone home for inappropriate behavior. We also start every academy with a challenge course to get everyone working as a team. When everyone is treated like an extended family, there are generally not many behavior problems. We also start the day at 8 a.m. and are engaged with group activities until about 9 p.m., so there isn’t time for inappropriate behavior. Supervised free time is available each day so students can relax, do laundry, call home, etc.

Activities include cloning, grafting, making bonsai and dish gardens, making pervious concrete pavers, doing soil testing, extracting DNA, diagnosing plant diseases, participating in a hands-on insect adventure, touring botanic gardens, installing holes in putting greens and then repairing the area after moving them, and making landscape plans. Other activities include career-interest inventories and recreation, such as group-painting night, rock climbing, swimming, basketball, and group games. Local free activities, such as movie nights, are provided, and some churches have offered their lawns and equipment for recreation, such as Slip ‘N Slide kickball or water-balloon volleyball.

By planning months in advance and being efficient, we keep costs down and can provide items like academy T-shirts and swag, which help students feel part of the larger group. At the end of the two weeks, there are a goodbye dinner, an awards ceremony, and skits relating what the boys and girls did for the past two weeks. The skits are usually hilarious, and the parents enjoy watching them. At the closing there are a lot of tears among new best friends, many of whom stay in touch for several years afterwards. We do see some of our former students at the university, and one has majored in landscape architecture, stating that she decided on that area of study because she was exposed to it at Camp TURF. Many of the other participants go on to college. While the average Oklahoma high school graduate has a 56-percent chance of attending post-secondary education, over 76 percent of Camp TURF (and related state summer academies) participants have gone on to post-secondary education—many in the sciences.

Shelley Mitchell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Extension Specialist with Oklahoma State University’s Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture in Stillwater, Okla. Reach her at Shelley.mitchell@okstate.edu.