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Apply for the San Diego Academic Connections program this summer. Applications will be accepted until June 12 or when the courses are full. Fees include $3,700 for tuition, course materials, room, meals and activities and a $200 non-refundable application fee. [/call_to_action]

College-level courses, beach sunsets and evening gabfests in the dorms: Jose Zazueta, a high-school senior in the Imperial County town of Calexico, has plenty of memories to treasure about his three-week summer stint at UC San Diego. But the one that sticks in his mind the most has to do with how he barely felt homesick at all.

“I really felt at home,” Jose, who’s planning to be an engineer, said. “I said to myself, ‘I want to finish high school and go to college.’”

Jose has UC San Diego Extension to thank for his invaluable glimpse into college life. He took part in Academic Connections, a program that introduces hundreds of high-school students to campus life each summer.

“Students come from all over the world to experience a real-life UC San Diego college experience,” said Edward Abeyta, who oversees pre-college programs at UC San Diego Extension.

Students walking to class at the UC San Diego campus. Photo courtesy of UC San Diego Extension.

Students stay in university dorms and get college credit for taking classes in subjects such as robotics, marine biology and mechanical engineering.

“They get to grow and transform as they’re away from home for the first time, and they develop a sense of confidence about going to college,” Abeyta said. “Once they come to campus, they develop an understanding of what it takes.”

Indeed, Jose says his three-week summer session gave him invaluable insight into university life.

“I didn’t know how much it would change the way I viewed education,” he said. “College is not high school. In high school, you have a schedule, and you have to attend every day. In college, you can do what you want.”

But that freedom comes with a price: With fewer rules, college students have to set their own standards or they’ll fail. Abeyta says the Academic Connections program helps high-school students understand this reality.

“We want to make sure that kids know what they’re getting into,” he says. “They’re making one of the biggest investments in their lives, and we want to do a better job at helping them understand whether this is something that they want to.”

About 350-400 students take part in Academic Connections each year and take classes taught by UC San Diego graduate students. The program also offers “Global Environmental Leadership and Sustainability” summer immersion courses at the University of Hawai’i-Hilo, the University of New Mexico and the University of Arizona. An expanded two-week version will be offered next summer in San Diego and Washington D.C. through a partnership with Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Part of UC San Diego Extension’s K–16 Programs, Academic Connections welcomes gifted high school students with a minimum cumulative 3.3 GPA. A scholarship outreach program makes it accessible to underserved, first-generation college-bound students, who make up one-fourth of its student body. Students can also sign up for year-round test prep courses for the ACT and SAT as part of UC San Diego Extension’s K-16 offerings.

The programs receive no state funding and instead rely on tuition and fees. “We’re proud that we’ve made a positive difference in the lives of tens of thousands of young people without any dollars from taxpayers,” says Abeyta, who’s headed Academic Connections since 2006.

But the program isn’t just about helping students.

“It’s also a test for parents to see what their role will be as their kids leave the nest to go to college,” he says. “This gives them a chance to kick the tires and drive a little bit.”

Jose, the Imperial County teenager, liked what he saw at UC San Diego. He’s now applying to colleges like MIT, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and UC Davis with an eye on an engineering career

If he’s lucky, the next few years will be filled with more dorm gabfests, more college-level courses and − maybe − more beach sunsets too.

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