Why Teens (and Pre-Teens!) Love FIT

It seems oddly quiet—and calm—on campus this week, and I know why. Our summer precollege programs, which this year brought 2,000 teens and preteens to campus, just ended. While we always have college students taking courses during the summer, they seem to disappear into the ether when these highly energized youngsters arrive. With an astonishing pitch of excitement, they seem to take over every corridor, classroom, elevator, our sidewalks and plazas. They always make me smile.

They come from all over the world: Belgium, Mexico, Pakistan, Italy, France and China, not to mention 44 states, including California, Utah, Tennessee and Minnesota. But the majority are from the New York region. And since we offer programs for middle school as well as high school students, they range in age from 11 to 18. In fact, over 20 percent are between the ages of 11 to 14.

Many colleges offer summer programs for teenagers, but ours is unique in the same way that FIT is unique: it is geared for the student with an interest in design, fashion, the arts—or the business of fashion. With schools throughout the nation offering almost no exposure to the arts anymore, our precollege programs often provide a first opportunity for these youngsters to explore their incipient interests and to cultivate their budding talents. I wish every youngster had this chance.

So for the past three weeks, here they were, in our labs, classrooms and studios, taking courses such as fashion forecasting, draping, life drawing, photography, fashion art, magazine design, the beauty business, comic book drawing (a special hit with the boys), and fashion merchandising. They took field trips to galleries, museums, to designer studios and stores ranging from H&M to Prada. They also toured our own museum’s special collection and were introduced to our library’s archives. Exposed in these settings to the very resources that industry professionals use, the students were, according to our precollege program director, “in heaven.”

I was fascinated to learn that these students are not interested in technology-based courses. They are saturated with technology. What they want is a hands-on tactile experience—which they are not getting in their schools—or straightforward career-oriented information. So the design-oriented students signed up for sculpture and sewing, painting and screen printing. And our business-oriented students chose courses in which they could learn as directly as possible how the industry works and picked their instructors’ brains about other resources such as trade publications and websites.

It is only a three-week program, and yet it is, for these students, profoundly important. They are at an impressionable—even vulnerable—age in a new environment that encourages them to explore their creativity and to be a little bit introspective. Not surprisingly, they form close friendships. “It’s nice to really fit in somewhere,” one girl said in her blog. Indeed, for many of them, the experience is transformative. And I have to share a quote from a thank you letter one young man sent to one of his instructors: “Your class taught me about college preparation, a career and opportunities that I couldn’t imagine…You helped me see that life beyond high school was way more realistic and achievable than I thought.” It is easy to understand why almost 25 percent of the students in FIT’s first-year class—every year—were participants in our precollege program.

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