When Summer Hits, Families Head to School

Universities open doors to learning vacationers

It's not the first place you'd think of taking a family vacation. But what if you could spend some time on a college campus - minus the exams and late-night library sessions?

Universities have the facilities and faculty needed to accommodate families - and are recognizing the benefits of courting family vacationers, including stronger alumni ties and early access to future students.

Programs range from ambitious overseas tours to campus-based learning opportunities. The fare is equally broad. It includes the academic (writing workshops, lectures on Gothic cathedrals or the US presidency) and the recreational (step-dancing, art lessons, rowing clinics). In most cases, adults and young people enjoy different learning opportunities, but come together for meals and special sessions.

A family week at the College of the Atlantic in Maine costs as little as $1,300 for mom, dad, and two preteens. Tours for families sponsored by Stanford (Calif.) University will separate vacationers from a bit more of their money: $1,000 to $9,000 per person for a 13-day trip to Tuscany in Italy, and roughly the same for trips to Alaska and the Aegean Islands.

The College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor offers field-study weeks during which primarily teachers and their families learn together about the natural world through bird and geology walks, whale watches, nature cruises, and tide-pool explorations.

Stanford's Tuscany tour, which spends a week in a 14th-century village before moving on to Florence, has college students act as camp counselors to the tour's Young Explorers, as the junior travelers are called.

Students are a ready labor pool for summer programs, and modern residence halls make an attractive housing option for those who'd rather not rough it in spartan dorms.

Many of the summer programs are aimed at alums, but aren't exclusive. Stanford has an open-enrollment policy when it comes to its Stanford Family Adventures, now in their third year.

Cornell University - considered a leader in on-campus family learning - draws no distinction between alums and nonalums, while Pennsylvania State University in University Park, offers a small discount to graduates who enroll families in the alumni vacation college.

Connecting with alumni

Cornell's program has been attracting families to the school's Ithaca, N.Y., campus for the past 30 years. A break-even venture, it benefits the school in less tangible ways while sharing its extensive facilities.

"We're maintaining the warm, fuzzy feeling between the university and alumni," says Lynn Abbott, associate director of Cornell's Adult University and its family programs.

Another payoff comes in the form of future students - young people who taste life on campus and set their sights on becoming undergraduates.

Cornell actively accommodates children from ages 3 to 16 in special programs that run concurrently with those their parents or grandparents participate in.

"If you don't have a youth program, you're going to close out all the younger alumni," Ms. Abbott says. "You'll get those who graduated within the last 10 years who haven't started families and a group of empty-nesters, but there will be a gap in the middle."

Joan Ross, director of Stanford's trips, says they're designed to reach the family audience that escapes alumni outreach efforts. "We wanted to reconnect with the 30-to-50-year-olds, and the Family Adventures seemed a nice way to get them back and engaged with the university in a fun way."

Other opportunities for parents and children around the country include:

* At Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., adults who attend folk music workshops at the Swannanoa Gathering can enroll their children, ages 5 to 12, in sessions that teach folk singing, dancing, and fiddling.

* Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., offers professional coursework to adults, and sports and aerospace camps to young people.

* The University of California-Santa Barbara takes advantage of its seaside location and gives families a resort-like experience at its Family Vacation Center.

Grownups at Cornell wade into intellectual waters, studying literature, architecture, and ornithology along with the mechanics of the golf and tennis swing.

"We're not Club Med," Abbott says. "Everyone is here because of the academic part of the program. That's an immediate common bond that gives you something to talk about in the lounge."

Adults are responsible for getting their charges to the dining hall for breakfast and dropping them off at youth programs.

"The adults see the kids, but they're not tripping over them," says Abbott of an arrangement that has been well-received by participants. The teenagers spend the week under the supervision of college-age counselors and seldom see Mom and Dad.

Small enrollments

Enrollment in these college family vacations is not usually large, because they are little advertised, and smaller groups work better. At Penn State, where 100 or fewer family members may sign up for the Alumni Vacation College, Mary Jane Stout, an alumni continuing education planner, says, "We don't want it to get too big because you wouldn't get to know everybody."

The camaraderie that emerges is built on mutual interests - in family life, learning, and the university. This leads to regular customers, as at Cornell, where some families keep returning.

Keeping such programs running has rewards, but takes some effort. "Family programs involve so much more planning," says Washington and Lee's Rob Fure, who directs the alumni college on the university's Lexington, Va., campus. "It means not just hosting people, but promising them a meaningful educational experience."

Places to Earn Your Vacation Degree

The following are some of the schools offering summer programs - from ambitious overseas tours to more modest campus-based classes.

* Stanford Family Adventures

Stanford Alumni Association

Bowman Alumni House

Stanford, CA 94305

(650) 725-1093

* Alumni Vacation College

Penn State University

401 D Keller Building

University Park, PA 16802

(814) 865-5466

* College of the Atlantic

Field Studies by the Sea

105 Eden Street

Bar Harbor, ME 04609

(207) 288-5015

* Swannanoa Gathering

Warren Wilson College

P.O. Box 9000

Asheville, NC 28815

(704) 298-3434

* Cornell's Adult University

626 Thurston Avenue

Ithaca, NY 14850-2490

(607) 255-6260

* Embry-Riddle Aeronautical U.

Division of Continuing Education

600 S. Clyde Morris Boulevard

Daytona Beach, FL 32114

800-359-4550

* Family Vacation Center

U of Calif.-Santa Barbara

Alumni Association

Santa Barbara, CA 93106

805-893-3123

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