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Dublin: 4 °C Friday 25 April, 2014

“We all have a particular talent – but it’s one with a bad reputation”

Every year, thousands of academically above-average students attend the Centre for Talented Youth in DCU. Here, four teenagers explains what it means to them.

The Journalism class in CTYI
The Journalism class in CTYI
Image: CTYI

THE CENTRE FOR Talented Youth is a lot of different things to the thousands of kids and teenagers who attend its classes.

For some, it’s a place to feel comfortable in their own skin; to be able to learn about serious subjects (philosophy, journalism, app development) as well as the more whimsical (90s appreciation, debating, and watching Pixar films feature among the regular activities); to share their experiences with other people who are in the top 5 per cent academically in the country – or to forget about that, and just enjoy being part of a big group of teenagers having a good time at summer camp.

Based in Dublin City University, CTYI runs classes for students aged between 6 and 17. For the youngest children, this means going to classes on Saturdays during term-time, while teenagers have the option of attending a three-week residential course during the summer where they can study classes ranging from social psychology to novel writing to criminology.

Here, four students from this summer’s journalism class describe their experiences at what they affectionately refer to as ‘nerd camp’.

Katie Goff

I have attended CTYI summer sessions at Dublin City University for three years,  but when I was first put forward by my school to take an aptitude test to determine whether I would qualify for the programme I was apprehensive.

The first thing that didn’t sit well with me was the name. Centre for Talented Youth to me implied a level of pretention. I already felt awkward at school because of my love for the ‘nerdier’ things in life. I thought  it would only serve to alienate me further from my peers.

As fate would have it I qualified. CTYI takes students in who rank in the top 5 per cent in the country academically. I have never thought of myself as particularly intelligent. I liked to read and to write but anything mathematical goes completely over my head.

I still struggle in school. Getting an A for me is just as a big a deal for me as it is for any other student.

Even though I enjoy school and with a considerable amount of work I can do quite well at it, I felt unchallenged in the areas I was good at.  Coming to CTYI in the summer allowed me to have discussions about books that my friends in school had never read. I got to study courses that interested me that would not have been available to me at school.

I view academic talent the same way as I view any other talent. If a person is good at football they challenge themselves. They seek to hone their skill and improve. That is what CTYI allows us to do. We all have a particular talent but it’s one with a bad reputation. Being ‘gifted’ has a stigma attached to it.

We often come across sounding snobby and pretentious in articles or documentaries about us. I can see why. It’s a hard thing to explain.

When people ask me where I go on the summer I say nerd camp because if I say CTYI I run the risk of people asking what it stands for. Most of us don’t think we’re better than other people. We understand that this is just one aspect of life that we happen to excel at.

When I come to CTYI during the summer it’s an escape for me. Not because I can use bigger words or launch into in-depth debates on Marxism. The course has an atmosphere of acceptance. We try not to judge one another because we encounter that a lot during the year.

We have traditions that have built up over the years. We wear dressing gowns on Thursdays in a tribute to Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’. We dress up like pirates on Wednesdays. Harry Potter appreciation is a favourite activity. These things may not happen at any ‘ordinary’ summer camp but it works for us. These traditions are just a means of expressing our interests, although they must look strange to outsiders.

The three weeks we spend here are a respite. We are in a pressure free zone here. A lot of the time we put pressure on ourselves.

We’ve been told we’re ‘gifted’ so a lot us feel as though anything less than perfection academically is failure.

Students often get attached to CTYI. For some of us it’s the only place we feel we can be ourselves for others it’s just a place they love to go. I have gained confidence in my abilities and in myself as a result of the programme. The programme aims to help us reach our full potential; it does that not only academically but also on personal level. We are taught in school that differences are to be celebrated but I never thought that mine should be until I came here.

Niamh Lynch

I started attending primary school courses from the age of 10 when CTYI was first introduced in my hometown of Letterkenny in Donegal and then moved onto the secondary school summer courses from 2010.

The experiences of gifted children in Ireland vary dramatically. Some ease through the education system and excel socially, while others are not as fortunate. But for the most part, CTYI definitely changes everyone for the better. When I first arrived here, I had just turned 13 and was quite shy. At home, I was never in the popular group but I had a few friends.

I hated expressing my opinion, for fear that people would think what I was saying was completely stupid. School was incredibly boring, to the extent where I thought ‘what’s the point?’

Over the past four years, I have completely changed. I have accomplished so many things that I would never have done without the confidence CTYI gave me. I was academically challenged in a way that I had never thought possible. While you gain so much from the academic side of things, there is an incredible social aspect of CTYI as well. I have made so many amazing friends here and I have so many amazing memories to take with me. At CTYI, you can interact with people that you share interests in. As someone once said to me, ‘where else would you find a group of teenagers that care more about the state of the European economy than Justin Bieber’s new haircut?’

However, sometimes this leads people to the opinion that CTYI is pretentious or elitist. When you put 300 teenagers together for 3 weeks and tell them they’re better than everyone else, I can understand why people would arrive at that conclusion. In my opinion, this is not the case. While we’re not all perfect, I think the structure of CTYI allows everyone to challenge themselves and yet see that there are many people just as intelligent as you, if not way more so, which definitely keeps my feet on the ground.

I am so thankful to have attended CTYI, I will miss it a lot when the time comes to leave. I hope that everyone who attends here in the future will get the same out of it as I did. It has truly been one of the best experiences of my life.

Elle Loughran

This year is my first, so I’m a newbie in session two, the session with a large majority of returning students. This could have been intimidating, except for the rather incredible fact that CTYI seems to be the most welcoming and friendly place on earth. I came here barely knowing anyone, with perhaps one or two acquaintances or people I’d heard of. Almost immediately upon arriving I was invited to sit down with a group of people and have a conversation about pirates, ninja, and – if I remember correctly – ducks. The conversations about sound cones and the Napoleonic Wars came later. Everyone was remarkably articulate, but that wasn’t what I noticed most. What jumped out at me was the happiness here.

Class started the next day, Monday, and it was quite possibly my favourite learning environment out of any I’ve experienced. It wasn’t even necessarily the subject, even though I really enjoyed study journalism. It was more the fact that everyone contributed to class discussions and seemed to be enjoying them, something that would be an extremely rare occurrence back in school at home.

The days that followed were a flurry of rushing around, meeting people, learning and laughing. I consider myself a happy person, but I probably laugh more here in three weeks than I do in a year without the wonderfulness that is CTYI. On Wednesday I was unsurprised to find a large percentage of the student population dressed as pirates, myself included. Thursday brought dressing-gowns worn in the morning and Friday had formal suits. There is never a dull moment on campus.

The strange thing – and one of my favourites – about CTYI is that it doesn’t seem to fly past. Often when I’ m on holiday or enjoying myself it feels like days pass unnoticed, that I’m cheated of time, but even though I’m enjoying myself hugely here every day really does feel worth it because they’re so insanely busy.

It’s a diverse and accepting place, not only in terms of sexual orientation and belief but also in personalities and friendships. It’s a place where you feel like you’re stripped down to who you really are, and become a better person for it.

It’s somewhere where I feel completely comfortable with myself and with others, where I don’t have to care what others think of me because nobody here does. People get Harry Potter in-jokes and references. It’s common for someone to rush up to you and exclaim over how much they loved a book you’re reading. The other day a friend here wrote my name on my hand in Tolkien’s Elvish. And not everyone likes these particular things – not everyone even likes reading, per se – but we’re able to have measured discussions about them (and mess around a lot. Many of us are ‘the serious one’ at home, so it’s nice to let it out for a while).

It’s nice to be surrounded by people like you, not only in intelligence but in everything that bleeds into – humour, wit, sensitivity – and it’s good to see that you’re not alone. Some people say that it’s a humbling experience, but I think it shows that we all have room to grow. As one of the younger students here, of course there are people around me more intelligent than I am. I’ve never struggled to keep up, even in these fast-paced classes, but I know that there are many different kinds of people.  Yet there’s not a trace of any kind of bullying or meanness. Even the arrogance you might expect tends to give way to self-deprecating humour, to yet more fun and mutual understanding. Everyone is treated as an equal.

CTYI is coming to an end now for this year, and soon it will be time for us to pass around notebooks for signing and swap numbers with the friends we’ve made. I am reminded of a scene in the disco – the CTYI kind complete with our own little customs – with all of us swaying along, interlinked, to American Pie, Bohemian Rhapsody and many more. There is an intense sense of community, one that I believe you couldn’t find anywhere else on Earth. And let us never forget the many random, spontaneous hugs. Vive l’esprit de CTYI!

William Ogden Deacon

People shouldn’t get the impression that the only thing at CTYI is the course work – and they definitely shouldn’t get the impression that it’s the most important aspect. For most people, CTYI is a safe haven for all of the kids who don’t really fit in, who were possibly bullied earlier in life, or who just weren’t able to socialise. CTYI is a place where it’s perfectly acceptable to dress up as a pirate every Wednesday, and as Arthur Dent from The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy every Thursday. It’s a place where a love for all things mathematical or an avid interest in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Shakespeare are not only accepted, but encouraged. It’s easy to see how it got its nickname, “Nerd Camp”.

The most important aspect of CTYI is, without a shadow of a doubt, the social aspect. Nowhere else in Ireland will you find such a collection of like-minded people, all interested in the same things as you, all well-read in the same fandoms as you. I’ve known people who didn’t have any friends before CTYI, and within 3 weeks they were having trouble remembering the names of all the people they knew. It’s taking every kid who thinks “I’m the only one”, and putting them in a room together for days.

Coming into CTYI on my first day, two years ago, I knew no one. Within a few minutes, I had already made friends and felt right at home. To a lot of people, that’s exactly what CTYI is: Home. Where they come from, they might not know or get along with the people with whom they go to school, or with whom they just generally end up spending time. But when they come back here after 49 weeks away, all of the problems fizzle away, and they can jump right into the fun of 3 weeks with their best friends.

There is a line, originally by Dr Seuss, which says “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”. At CTYI, this line is something of a motto, repeated by those who know they’re not coming back, and for those who simply can’t stand the thought of leaving for a year. I think it really epitomises CTYI, because as much as it’ll never be the same once you’ve left, it’s an experience that’ll never leave you. As much as it’s a 3 week space of time allocated every summer, CTYI is more than that: it’s a state of mind. The ideologies are ever-present throughout the rest of your life, and the friends you make stay with you for years to come.

And that’s awesome.

(All pics: CTYI)

Read: “Are smart kids misrepresented in the media? Definitely” >

Read: How are gifted young people cared for in Ireland? >

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