Duke University Alumni Magazine


Attracting bright seventh-graders to the Talent Identification Program is an important first step for families and schools. The campus experience embraces the notion that academic proficiency is important. Steps to higher learning: Talented youngsters start their college experience even before beginning the eighth grade
Photo: Les Todd

Neal was the ultimate fourteen-year-old eccentric. In 1985, long before grunge was cool, he sported shoes without soles and wore an athletic jersey that identified him as "Buddha" (as I recall, Buddha's "number" was 00). "Siddhartha" Neal lived just outside the city limits in an antebellum house with ten cats and wall-to-wall oriental carpeting and parents who had once helped to design missiles for the Army.

Neal owned an Apple Macintosh before anyone else in town, and spent hours in his basement programming on it. He had read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy twice, and wore even thinner the pages of Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Hanging out with Neal meant conversations on evolution, astrophysics, and the ancient Greek language. Of course, it was all Greek to me. He had a thousand ideas a second, most of them beyond my comprehension, and I would have gladly spent every summer day with him if he didn't have to leave for a campus 500 miles away in Durham, North Carolina, to get his annual three-week recharging.

To this day, when the subject of Duke's Talent Identification Program comes up, I think immediately of Neal, who made two summer trips to Duke in the early Eighties to study writing and Greek. He came back to Florence, Alabama, with humorous stories of pseudo-cultic rituals conducted with other TIPsters, such as the sacrificing of tennis balls. (As far as I recall, this involved sticking butter knives into "virgin" balls--those that had not yet been served.) After Neal took the writing course that summer, he continued to psychoanalyze the personal essays of his classmates well into the winter. There were many at home who appreciated Neal, but few were as quick-witted. He met his match at TIP. Neal told me about some TIPsters who were so isolated in their home settings that they spent the other forty-nine weeks of the year yearning for TIP, where they felt normal for the first time.

Such was the picture I had of TIP, an oasis for kids who were trapped in a vast intellectual desert. So when I had the opportunity to observe the program first-hand, I eagerly took it. I was curious to know how TIP had changed over the past two decades, and to meet the kids who now filled its summer program. Though TIP is not ancient by any standards, it is older than any of the students currently associated with it. I wanted to see if TIP had grown to greet the times while still remaining a place where a kid like Neal could feel at home.

Since 1980, when the first talent-identification search took place, the Talent Identification Program has introduced Duke University to more than one million seventh-graders and their families. Last year, 94,000 seventh-graders were invited to take the SAT or ACT alongside college-bound high school students. Sufficiently high scores bring state recognition. The top 1,300 scoring students are invited to an awards ceremony in Duke Chapel, where each student hears his or her name in grand, Gothic echo.

The idea for the program was brought from Johns Hopkins by then-provost William Bevan A.M. '43, Ph.D. '48, Hon. '72, now a professor emeritus of psychology and still an ex-officio member of the TIP National Advisory Board. TIP carved out its own geographic region

separate from Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth program and began to build its own identity. Bevan's goals were several: introduce up-and-coming smart kids to Duke, address the needs of gifted students who aren't being well served by local school systems, and use the opportunity to determine what makes academically talented kids different from the ones they left at home.

"For many of these youngsters, TIP is a very important first step for their family and school, embracing the notion that academic proficiency is important," says current program director Stephen Pfeiffer. Young people take part in the physical-fitness awards program started by President John F. Kennedy, so why not use the national arena to offer an intellectual challenge as well? Pfeiffer became interested in "giftedness" while doing doctoral work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the late 1970s. Later, after serving as a psychologist for a variety of special-needs students, he became "surprised and concerned that the gifted student has been neglected compared to other special-needs children. There seems to be an attitude that they'll get by on their own."

The civil-rights movement had the side effect of making school districts frown on programs that might be viewed as elitist. Gifted students already had every advantage, right? While parents of the learning disabled became well-organized, parents of gifted students never did, possibly due to the lack of standards for identifying a child as gifted. Even when such students are identified, the prevailing philosophy is to mainstream them. "It's a great idea, but you need a lot of teacher support for that," says Vicki Stocking '85, TIP's

director of research. "I think it's very, very hard to do, meeting the needs of thirty students of differing abilities."

TIP makes no bones about gearing itself to the gifted population, and it has expanded in order to serve more clients. No longer is a summer at Duke the sole option. Appalachian State University, Davidson College, and the University of Kansas also host stateside TIP summers, while some students opt for overseas learning in England, Germany, Italy, or Greece. Scientific field study sessions are available in the northern Rockies, New Mexico, and Costa Rica. TIP offers distance learning opportunities, TIP weekends at Duke, and joint programs with Southern Methodist University, Northwest Louisiana Technical College, the University of Southern Mississippi, and Western Kentucky University.

The sixteen states from which TIP draws students employ a total of thirty-two tests for their own measurements. So it is that, after twenty years, the SAT and ACT still remain the best available ways to compare students among states. (It bears mentioning that home-schoolers also take part; last year, two of the top ten scores came from home-schooled students.)

Summer school: Students bring creativity and intensity to all of their TIP experiences
Photos:Les Todd

Pfeiffer teaches a class at Duke on competing views of intelligence, and he lectured on the subject this summer to a TIP psychology class. "TIP's focus on academic talent is simply a recognition that we can't do it all for all youngsters, but we can work very well with kids who have one special gift," he says. There are no plans to devise a more comprehensive talent-measuring test; however, a method for measuring a student's level of motivation is currently under design.

In recognition of other disciplines where students might prosper, TIP has added courses in world music, film, Eastern philosophy, even comic books. This summer brought the birth of a pilot program in youth leadership, in conjunction with the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy.

One July day in Scott Morrow's "America in the Sixties" class, history professor and Trinity dean William Chafe is the visiting lecturer. Chafe is comparing the women's movement with the rise of the national gay movement in the 1960s. A student raises her hand: "Why was there political pressure for women to come out as lesbians then, even if they weren't?" Chafe explains: "It was the only way you could theoretically declare your full independence from men. This is the place where political correctness has its origins." There's very little tittering when the class ventures into such potentially controversial areas. Here, "being cool" has taken on a more academic meaning.

After Chafe leaves, instructor Morrow asks the class what they thought. One student asks what Chafe meant when he was talking about "cell groups" in the gay movement. Morrow talks for a moment about how resistance organizations in the former Eastern Communist bloc were organized in a similar way--small groups loosely joined in order to make detection of the entire network difficult for authorities.

"At home, we don't have classes where people pose revolutionary ideas. It took me a while to adjust," says Marisa Rosen of Tallahassee, Florida. In her "World Music" class, instructor and former TIPster Chris Colvin, twenty-seven, asks Marissa and her classmates to think about the history and politics that underlie riffs and beats. Today it's personal music ethnography day, a kind of show-and-tell in which a class member shares six favorite songs while the rest of the class asks probing biographical questions.

The exercise compels interviewees to think about musical choices rather than taste, says Colvin, an anthropology graduate student in South Africa who is continually surprised by his students' open-mindedness. "They are moved by something, so to them it's art. It's a hipsterness. They know what's middle-class and American, and they don't want to be labeled as that." Still, Colvin manages to find room to "challenge them where they are."

Meanwhile, in math class, the trick is to keep the students all on the same page. "I don't have to say much. These kids are right there with me," says Shelly Kaestner, who teaches a year's worth of Algebra II in about two and a half weeks. Today she sits on her desk and works from an overhead projector to explain combination and permutation problems. Students have the freedom to interrupt her when they have a question. "They enjoy being challenged, but I wouldn't say they're all gifted," Kaestner says. "Some are just good students. Usually they're sitting in

a class at home being bored to tears."

For Morrow, who teaches the Sixties class, TIP is a lesson in what engages a student. "Age is not the big discerner. It's innate ability and motivation. For me, having an eighteen-year-old is no inherent advantage."

In East Campus' Carr Building, students in TIP's Shakespeare course practice skits for the talent show, two days away. Few of the students are bound for the professional stage, but they are completely comfortable around each other. "Their acting has really improved," says teaching assistant Maria Fackler, a Trinity senior. For the course, each student has to pick out and learn thoroughly a scene of Shakespeare in order to direct his classmates in a performance. There is plenty of room for interpretation. One student choreographed a fight scene using the weapons of Frisbee and sword.

Where do these kids come up with this stuff? Vicki Stocking wants to know. In addition to her work for TIP, Stocking is an adjunct assistant professor in Duke's psychology department. Her research has shattered most of the preconceptions she had about gifted students. "The literature says that really bright kids are inept in a lot of ways," Stocking explains. When she began studying TIPsters nearly ten years ago, "I didn't have high expectations for their social adjustment. I was wrong." As it turns out, most kids at TIP are very well-adjusted. Extroversion is a common trait, and most can express themselves well. There are few android students at TIP.

Stocking tries to visit every TIP class at least once. She hands out questionnaires to learn students' attitudes toward grades, self-image, and motivation. She explains to the students that she doesn't want anyone to feel like a guinea pig, but mentions that Duke is a research university and suggests that "research is a way to teach people about yourselves." Participation in research requires parental permission and is completely voluntary.

Stocking emphasizes the subjectivity of questions regarding personality. In one class, she administered a Myers-Briggs test to students and asked them to guess their personality types, tricking them at first by giving results that were the opposite of what they wanted to hear. That spurred a heated discussion of the test's limitations. Stocking smiles: "Then I told them the actual results and reminded them the same problems applied."

Stocking has five summer assistants and one post-doctorate graduate student who help her analyze data. The team's big push currently is a longitudinal, multi-dimensional study on the topic of self-concept, or the ways in which a student regards herself. So far the findings are fascinating.

Gifted students, says Stocking, tend to place importance on the same things as other students, including the need to be accepted by their peers. And, while they may be very good at several subjects, they aren't always able to admit it. Most only view themselves as very good at math or English or drama--never all of the above, even if their grades argue the opposite. "It's as if one has only a certain amount of self-confidence, and they put it all toward one talent," Stocking says. And although gifted adolescents can be very sophisticated at finding the gray areas in their coursework, when it comes to looking at themselves, everything is black and white.

Despite her exceptional access, it's sometimes difficult for Stocking's research to make it into the traditional journals on gifted psychology. "TIP is not the general model for gifted programming," she explains. Bright kids who have trouble interacting with people aren't usually drawn to TIP's residential programs. Though she has published a few articles, Stocking's research is used mainly by TIP to better understand its own clients.

Because a TIPster is highly social, TIP puts plenty of emphasis on its residential component. Students live in dorms and take meals at campus eateries. "It's a little taste of college," says Gray Graziani, sixteen. Though he lives in Greenville, North Carolina, the site of East Carolina University, Graziani considers TIP a more authentic introduction to college life.

"We have something you can't find anywhere else," says Ray Bennett. Bennett is only twenty-two, but he spent his college summers working at TIP and now oversees the residential experience on a full-time basis. As Bennett says, the residential aspect is "not just about keeping them busy from seven p.m. till midnight." The activities designed by the twenty-seven RCs (residential counselors) have to challenge students' creativity and stretch their skills--while still seeming like a fun diversion from the day's classroom intensity.

"Senseless Debates" (in which students argue, for example, "the pros and cons of apples versus oranges"), dramatic readings of student work, and a talent show are just a few of the program's bonding strategies. At Quadfest, the different living groups are pitted against one another in such competitions as "Jell-o Snarfling," basketball, and "Cheesy Poofs." Entrances to the games must be choreographed, with team members wearing their dorm's colors. This year the first-years in Pegram won for the first time in TIP history. Their entrance was based on the Book of Exodus, in which Moses leads the Pegramites to freedom through a sea of red T-shirts. (The fourth-years entered with a modern dance to Rachmaninoff. Somehow, this didn't rate quite as high.)

This adolescent age group is moving fast anyway, but friendships forged in these three weeks can be intense. The closing ceremony on the program's final Saturday morning is designed to be informal and allow for the tears that are always present, especially when the fourth-year students say their adieus.

TIP is Alex Macchi's favorite time of year. The fourteen-year-old attends a magnet school in Sarasota, Florida, but nothing compares to these three weeks in Durham. "Here you shake someone's hand, just like the real world--there's no snobbery," she says. "People are not labeled as dorks here. Before TIP, I was afraid to be myself."

Macchi's friend, Lauren Varnell, from Cullman, Alabama, interrupts with an observation. "Last year, Alex was timid. This year, she's one of the more confident people around." Varnell knows confidence: In addition to playing the flute, she's a linebacker on her high school's junior varsity football team. I am about to ask Alex more about TIP's social life when she excuses herself: She wants to spend time with her TIP boyfriend before classes begin.

I remembered my friend Neal saying some students were bereft without TIP. Jacqueline Matthews, fifteen, came all the way from Oklahoma to find a group of students who wouldn't cheat off her papers. "I was sick of being the smartest one in the class," she says. TIP introduced her to dozens of intellectual peers.

Pfeiffer says it's still true that some students live from TIP to TIP, but these days e-mail makes it much easier for participants to stay connected through the rest of the year. Over last Christmas break, Matthews and a few other TIP veterans had a mini-reunion in New York City. Pfeiffer explains that a TIPster can also take part in a weekend course at Duke, or can enroll at home in one of TIP's distance-learning classes in mathematics or writing. At the same time, TIP officials try very hard to emphasize to students the importance of connecting with classmates in their home schools.

Ironically, while they take home memories, they don't take home grades. "TIP's belief is that kids take more risks when there is no reward at the end," says Stocking. Instead, an instructor writes a short essay discussing a student's classroom performance. The no-grade philosophy seems to work well, given that the student has chosen a single class and no other subjects that can be neglected in the process.

How has TIP changed in twenty years? TIP is still much whiter than the student population at large, but less white than it used to be. Its first summer program had only one non-Caucasian student for every 151. In 1998, minority enrollment was 29 percent.

"Our position is that we have a special interest in identifying typically underrepresented groups," says director Pfeiffer. "If they meet our [testing] criteria, we'll do everything we can to bring them here." Pfeiffer has sent staff to minority schools that typically don't tell kids about the talent search. "We want to find a champion in that school who will tell the parent that TIP is something to consider."

TIP programs range from $1,500 to $3,000. Of the 2,300 students who took part in the variety of summer programs this year, more than 450 received partial or full fee waivers totaling more than a half-million dollars in financial aid.

TIP is also starting younger. Since 1994, the Motivation for Academic Performance (MAP) program has supplied parents of fourth- and fifth-graders scoring well on state tests with information on gifted resources. Pfeiffer says the program responds to a long-standing complaint of TIPsters' parents: If they had known earlier that their child was being under-challenged, they would have done more to nurture him or her.

Today TIP is mostly self-sustaining with grants, test fees, and tuition, with Duke providing administrative support as well as some office space. Familiarity with the campus also draws some former TIPsters into each freshman class.

Pfeiffer and the rest of the board have put together a grand vision for the next three to five years. They want to consolidate their scattered offices into one building, somewhere close to campus. They want to expand their reach to include a weekend program for MAP students, and to increase the number of distance-learning opportunities. Says Pfeiffer, "My fantasy would be five years from now for a parent to go into a bookstore in September and pick up two or three TIP program kits they can work with the child for the next nine months."

Creating an online network of TIP alumni is also a priority. If they are successful, perhaps they'll catch up with my friend Neal. The last I heard, after a year-long stint of prison ministry, Neal had married a woman in the Bahamas and was supervising a Caterpillar bulldozer repair team there.

I wonder if he's sacrificed any tennis balls lately. I hope so.

Larson '93 is a regular contributor to the magazine.


Scholarly sweethearts: Wenthe and Boggs Photo: Jim Wallace

Perhaps no two people illustrate the enduring effect of TIP better than Mike Wenthe '95 and Rebecca Boggs. Wenthe was fourteen and enrolled in TIP's Writing I class in the summer of 1986 when he met Boggs, one year younger and enrolled in Japanese.

Since the third grade, Wenthe had been drawing a comic strip that ran on the children's page of his local newspaper. At TIP, he was asked to draw a poster for TIP's James Bond film festival, and his best friend at the time showed the poster to Boggs.

Boggs, whose interest in Japanese had come through Japanese animation, immediately asked to meet the young artist. The two became friends, and--to Wenthe's disappointment--stayed at the friend level. "Another student engineered a 'Last Chance Dance' behind Pegram Dorm," remembers Wenthe. "Becca and I both went, but I was far too nervous to ask her to slow-dance."

They exchanged addresses and phone numbers. After two years of steady correspondence, both knew something was going to happen. They decided to return to TIP and learn French together. The rest was l'histoire --they began dating for real.

When it came time to pick a college, the couple diverged. Duke gave the best offer for Wenthe, an A.B. Duke Scholarship, and he accepted. Meanwhile, Boggs applied to Harvard early admission and agonized over her decision. Her father had gone to Harvard. Not wanting to make a college choice based on a relationship that might or might not work out, she opted for the Duke of the North. "It's much easier to say now that it would have been fine," Boggs says. "You can't answer that at seventeen or eighteen."

They didn't break up. Wenthe worked at TIP as a work-study student, and the two spent their summers together working for the program. During the school years, they pursued their courses of study with extreme focus.

In 1994--improbably enough, even given their mutual academic achievements--each was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. They traveled together to Oxford University in England for their advanced studies.

On August 17, 1997, the TIP couple got married. These days they attend graduate school in English at Yale. Whatever other honors they manage to explore together, they have TIP to thank for it.

"In some ways the success of our relationship is a special example for what TIP is so wonderful for," Boggs says. "The fact that Mike and I met there thirteen years ago and are now married is just one of the more striking examples of how

TIP changes its students' lives."

--Eric Larson

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