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Camp for promising STEM students will double in size, thanks to $4.55 million For the Bold gift

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    The Petters Family Foundation gives to Camp Launch:  Nancy Briggs Petters ’81 and Mike Petters M.B.A. ’93 (background, from left) observe a student at Camp Launch in 2016.  
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A summer band camp that Nancy Briggs Petters ’81 attended at William & Mary as a rising eighth-grader from Franklin started her on a path toward earning a bachelor’s degree and becoming a French teacher.

“I wanted to go to William & Mary literally since I stepped foot on campus at that camp,” said Petters, who later taught preschool for two decades and now serves as president of the board of the Downtown Hampton Child Development Center. “After two weeks of being with like-minded kids, I came back with a whole lot more confidence. It really has carried through my whole life.”

Her husband Mike Petters M.B.A. ’93 had a similar experience as a high schooler. Knowing the effect of early exposure to a college campus on their own lives, they are committed to making that kind of experience possible for academically promising but economically challenged Hampton Roads-area youth who might not otherwise have such an opportunity.

Every summer for the past eight years, rising seventh- and eighth-graders have spent two weeks at William & Mary during Camp Launch, focusing on a STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering and math) — at no cost to them.

Thanks to a new $4.55 million gift from the couple through the Petters Family Foundation, the residential program is poised to double the number of students who attend — to 300 by 2022 — while also deepening their connection to William & Mary by inviting them to participate for four years.

Students work on an experiment at Camp Launch in 2016.This year marks the sixth anniversary of Mike and Nancy Petters’ involvement in Camp Launch. When the couple learned that the innovative program was in danger of losing its funding after an initial four-year grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation expired, they enthusiastically stepped forward to keep it going with a $125,000 gift in 2015.

“From my perspective, giving kids who have great potential a vision of the possibilities for their future is a really good way for them to start setting goals for themselves,” Mike said. “Somebody once told us if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. I think what attracted us to this program was, here are kids who can be it if they could only see it.”

In 2016, the couple made a $1 million commitment to Camp Launch and sought to expand the program, which operates under the Center for Gifted Education at William & Mary’s School of Education, in an effort to reach more students. They asked Tracy L. Cross, the center’s executive director, if Camp Launch could double the number of students participating, from about 70 at the time to 150. Cross agreed, but he cautioned that growing too quickly could harm the program. He wanted time to study it and develop a plan.

“He came back and gave us a plan and it was a pretty well thought out plan,” Mike said. “We decided to fund it, and I think they met their objectives a year early.” 

By 2019, 152 students were attending Camp Launch. This summer, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the camp shifted to a virtual model.      

The Petterses’ commitment to education was recently honored by the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, which presented them with the Peninsula Humanitarian Award during a February 20 ceremony. The award recognizes their support for Camp Launch, as well as the Downtown Hampton Child Development Center and a K-12 program called An Achievable Dream. In addition, Mike, the president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries, has established a scholarship fund for children of employees by declining his annual salary except for $1.

The son of a Florida orange grower, Mike was the oldest of six children. Money was tight, but his parents made sure that he and his siblings had the opportunity to attend college. He went on to study physics at the U.S. Naval Academy and served on the nuclear-powered submarine USS George Bancroft before enrolling in William & Mary’s MBA program. At Huntington Ingalls, he leads the largest military shipbuilding company in the United States, with over 42,000 employees. 

Beginning this year, rising eighth-graders who attended Camp Launch last year will return as they prepare to enter high school. The next year, they will be able to attend again as rising 10th graders. The older students will participate in a more rigorous curriculum that includes chemistry and biology, Cross said.

“It’s a different model, a unique model,” he said. “There is no program in the country with the overall design being so developmental in nature, bringing the same students back for four consecutive years to a residential program with a highly articulated curriculum.”

Camp Launch participants in 2019 sample marine life using seine nets at the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve facility on the Virginia Institute of Marine Science campus at Gloucester Point. Another new component to Camp Launch being explored for  2021 is to have the rising ninth and 10 graders spend time at W&M’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science campus in Gloucester Point, Virginia.

John Wells, the dean and director of VIMS, said the details are still being planned. At VIMS, Camp Launch participants likely will have a chance to go out on research vessels, learn how instruments are used to measure water quality and take samples of what’s on the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, Wells said. They’ll also see how scientists use numerical models to predict things such as how much flooding a hurricane could cause.

“There’s a huge opportunity here,” Wells said. “These are going to be high-achieving, really interested students. If we can get them excited in ninth grade or 10th grade, it creates a potential pipeline for continuing on in sciences and maybe a pipeline to our program if they go on to graduate school.”

Also part of the expanded Camp Launch program will be a new focus on physical and mental health, including nutrition and exercise components, which the Petterses believe are important.

“We both know that those two things work hand in hand with mental health to get the best outcomes for a long and healthy life,” Nancy said.

During their first two years, Camp Launch participants receive a computer tablet. As they prepare to move into high school, they will be given a laptop computer. That will also help a program coordinator to stay in contact with the students throughout the year, tracking their progress and inviting them to campus events such as Focusing on the Future, an academic and career planning conference for middle- and high-school students.

Camp Launch's director, Mihyeon Kim (from left), with former camp participant and volunteer Jessica Vincent and Tracy L. Cross, executive director of the W&M School of Education's Center for Gifted Education. Of the 32 students who attended the first year of Camp Launch, Cross said, 14 communicated with program leaders about their post-high school plans. All of those students are going to college; one of them, NyJey Pope ’22, is now a rising junior at William & Mary.

Increasing the number of students who can follow in their footsteps only makes sense, said Spencer G. Niles, who stepped down this month as dean of the William & Mary School of Education, but will remain at the school as a professor in the Counselor Education program.

“There are situations where more isn’t better, but this isn’t one of them,” Niles said. “Being exposed to STEM in a residential setting in a top university in the nation is incredibly empowering for students. These students not only belong at a place like William & Mary, but thrive.”

Beyond the individual students who benefit from Camp Launch, Nancy Petters sees a ripple effect to the students’ families and friends.

“I can’t tell you how impressed we are with Dr. Cross and his team to be able to take what they know in their hearts is wonderful and come to us and then make it happen,” she said. “It speaks so well to William & Mary and President Rowe’s vision of making philanthropy not only a good thing to do, but the right thing to do for the community — to see William & Mary as vehicle through which folks can give to make our community better.”