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(MS)2: It's tough, it's intense – and kids love it

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They bring a range of family and financial hardships. One applicant saw a parent shot to death by the other parent. Many depend on public assistance.

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For students used to excelling without studying much, (MS)2 can be both a rude and pleasant awakening. "It's nice here to be able to think," says Ashleigh Eldemire, a first-year student from a Boston high school, where she says one teacher often fell asleep during class. "Here you want to work hard and get good grades. It's fun."

Still, adjusting to campus life can be as jolting as the class work. Many students arrive at this school of colonial brick buildings spread among wide lawns having rarely left their urban neighborhoods or rural reservations. Xavier Del Rosario of Harlem says it was so quiet his first night, he just couldn't sleep. Cassandra Toledo says she's used to silence on the Jemez Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico, but had never met an African-American. "This is a big culture shock to me," she comments.

(MS)2 students learned about each other's backgrounds by preparing skits during their second weekend together. A band composed of African-American students played a song by jazz musician John Coltrane. Native American students donned traditional garb to dance. "We try to get them to understand there's diversity within the diversity," Maqubela says.

And while their classes are held separately from other summer-session courses, they share dorms, eat cookies, and drink milk with all students on campus after morning classes, and play sports together each afternoon.

With a week left in the program, Xavier says he doesn't want to go home but won't necessarily mind showing off what he learned here. "You feel good when you know more than everyone in the class," he says.

Douglas Tyson, a science teacher from a Washington public school, says (MS)2 students return energized. "They come back with an infectious enthusiasm for academics," says Mr. Tyson, who has helped some two dozen students successfully apply. They also come back more confident, knowing they aren't alone. "It dispels any motion that it's acting white to be smart or to want to achieve or take books home," Tyson says.

By the third summer, the students' focus shifts ahead. They take a college-planning course and once a week visit top colleges including Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth.

Roy Adams, was unsure about where to go to college as a third-year (MS)2 student in 1995. The guidance counselor at his Bronx high school suggested a New York state school. Adams says he couldn't think of any better alternatives. But one day, one of the (MS)2 teachers stopped him and said, "Roy, you should think about Yale."

He wound up there, majoring in economics and playing football. He also convinced several friends who had never thought of Ivy League schools to apply, too.

"I started seeing the potential in me," says Adams who now works as a vice president at a financial-services firm. "It really broadened my horizons and introduced met to a whole world I was not privy to as a young kid growing up in the Bronx."