I first learned about the Middlesex County Academy from my middle school guidance counselor in the fall of 2007. Right before the Academy’s open house, she went around to many of the eighth grade classes in our school and explained the amazing opportunity available to prospective engineers in our area.
The pitch excited me enough to make me go to the open house. Upon entering the school, I almost immediately fell in love. The programs offered seemed to be exactly what I was looking for, and the students seemed so convinced that the Academy was the best high school around. If you’re at all interested in the Academy, I highly recommend that you go to the open house; physically being in the school is one of the best ways to see if the fit is truly right.
Although it wasn’t easy, I managed to convince my parents to let me apply. When I received my acceptance letter in early February of 2008, I hardly had to think about my decision. And now, years later, I can confidently say that choosing to go to the Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies was one of the best decisions of my life.
There’s something different about the Academy. To me, it felt less like a school and more like a community. With only around 150 students in the entire school, I was quickly able to recognize almost everyone, and I knew most of their names. There were no real troublemakers (I often bragged to my hometown friends that my school didn’t even have detention), and I never had to worry about my laptop going missing if I left it on a table in the commons.
I love how Academy students take pride in their school. They help the custodial staff keep the bathrooms clean, they push in their chairs, and they look out for their classmates. The Academy is often referred to as a “big happy family,” and I couldn’t agree more.
While the Academy was often challenging academically, I never really felt that it was overly so. It certainly wasn’t easy, but when I compared my coursework to the coursework of my friends in Metuchen, I often found that ours was more meaningful and involved less “busy work.” On top of that, Metuchen didn’t even come close to offering comparable classes in science, math, or engineering. The Academy simply made more sense for me.
The Academy’s coursework requires an adjustment period for many new freshman, but, eventually, they all do end up adjusting just fine. I know that the Academy is rumored to be an extremely difficult school, and while I won’t dispute the fact that it’s difficult, I will say that it is absolutely manageable. I never once had to pull an all-nighter, nor even stay up particularly late. While the work can be challenging, the teachers almost always give a sufficient amount of time to complete it.
One of the aspects that I loved most about the Academy, however, wasn’t even directly related to the school itself. In my sophomore year, I became a member of the Say Watt? Robotics Team. While the team is not officially sponsored by the school, it is made up almost entirely of Academy students. We competed in the FIRST Tech Challenge, and made it to the World Championship each year (three times for me, although they’re still competing). The photo below, for example, shows one of Say Watt? Robotics’ robots prevailing over the competition:
The robotics program provides an excellent opportunity for Academy students to apply much of the knowledge they gain in their engineering and science classes. I’m not really sure what I would have done without it.
While both the academics and out-of-school programs at the Academy were great, many of the most important lessons I learned at the Academy were more life lessons than anything else. Take, for example, an orientation event that I recently participated in at the University of Maryland. Students were asked to stand when they heard a statement that they agreed with, and sit when they heard a statement that they disagreed with. One of the statements posed was, “I believe that more than 50% of the responsibility for learning rests on the shoulders of the students.” I stood.
At the Academy, students are given independence that they likely never would have encountered in other high schools. While the teachers want each of their students to succeed, it is ultimately the responsibility of the student to get the help that they need. If they find themselves confused by one of their teachers’ lectures, for example, they may want to read ahead in the book to be better prepared. Teachers are there to help students learn, but in order to actually learn, students need to put in effort on their own. Simply showing up to class often isn’t enough.
I know that I will never forget that life lesson. Similarly, I will never forget the fundamentals of a good presentation, Mr. Lopac’s lessons on common sense, Mr. Lopac’s insistence that we go “above and beyond”, Ms. McNulty’s strict deadlines, nor many of the other lessons that I picked up at the Academy. As I mentioned earlier, choosing to go to the Academy was one of the best decisions of my life. I can’t imagine how different my life would be without it.