A while ago I wrote a piece documenting some of my favorite moments at nerd camp, but there's another side of this experience that I wanted to dish on.
Nerd camp is what it sounds like: a program during the summer for gifted and talented students to study different topics in depth, at a college level, when they are high school age or younger. They are typically residential programs, although day camps also exist. Admittance is based on exceptional performance on standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT.
Many ambitious parents will send their high-achieving kids (who go to some of the best schools, whether public or private) to these residential summer camps to challenge them intellectually and also provide them a place where they can learn subjects they are truly passionate about with people who are as smart as them, maybe even more. Others simply do this because it would "look good" on a college application. Though this second reason is practical, it should not be the only factor in deciding whether to participate in nerd camp or not. If it is, the meaning of nerd camp diminishes and everything becomes shallow.
Personally, I went to nerd camp to challenge myself academically (as per the first reason) but also socially. As a young student, I had difficulty making friends, and my parents thought that nerd camp would help me out a little. After five summers, I can confidently say that I grew comfortable tackling hard subjects like philosophy and logic in addition to socializing with others. Yes, I got a great return on my lofty investment (the cost of these programs), but now I'm beginning to wonder if nerd camp has just become a place to socialize…
Seeing the countless aesthetically-pleasing Instagram posts during and after camp, I wonder if camp is just another place to wear cute outfits, take cute pictures, date cute guys, and make a close-knit group of friends that you hope to see the next summer. With the mindset many teenagers and young people have these days regarding the presentation of themselves on social media, I think that the meaning of nerd camp has diminished. No longer are they truly focusing on what they learn in class, but they are finding every Instagrammable opportunity that will be shared online.
The student positions at many program sites (for CTY, at least) further emphasize the similarity to the real world. These specially created and then appointed roles are given to students who exemplify certain qualities but also have strong ties to that site and its traditions. Every role is demanding, and every role has its own functions. Some say that the choice of next year's position holder is not based on friendships, but I'll leave that for you to decide (I thought it was the case in a majority if not all positions). I'm not criticizing that though.
What I am criticizing is the fact that such positions create a natural hierarchy much like you'd see in a school, with queen bees on top and nobodies at the bottom. Hierarchies always invite a poisonous social situation in which the "group" stays insulated without spending much time with other campers not necessarily in the group. While I will say that as a loser at regular school I was able to assimilate into the "group", I'm not sure if it works for everyone who wishes to join the "cool kids".
So what are nerd camps now? Still the same intellectually-challenging places that they were designed to be, or a place to get Instagram-friendly images? Are they toxic situations where there are cliques like normal school? I won't deny that they essentially are microcosms of reality, but I'm still concerned for the truth and authenticity of being a nerd in the traditional sense.