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Ready to fly: Interlochen’s Student Support Team ensures that freshman students are cared for in their first year at boarding school and beyond

Whether your student needs extra help with their health, academics, or interpersonal relationships, Interlochen faculty have the skills and experience to address the unique challenges of boarding school life.

A teacher dressed in a brightly-colored coat smiles as he helps two students with their classwork.

For years, you've worked hard to give your student the best education possible. You’ve watched them grow from the first day of preschool all the way to the start of high school. You couldn’t be more proud of the amazing person they’ve become. Now, as their freshman year begins, it’s time for them to fly—pursuing their academic and artistic gifts at Interlochen Arts Academy. As a parent, you wonder: how will you be able to support your student from a distance? What resources will be available to your student if they get homesick, struggle with illness, or need academic help?

Interlochen faculty have a wealth of experience in addressing the unique challenges of boarding school life. For years, and sometimes decades, they’ve given expert, compassionate care to students from all over the world—just like your student. Here, three members of the Student Support team share their strategies for making sure Interlochen students succeed in their classes and develop a healthy school/life balance. They describe the services available for students working through challenges, and the focus on healthy support that informs every aspect of the Interlochen experience.

Building a sense of community, teaching vital life skills

When first-year students arrive on campus, they're encouraged to start developing independent living skills and learning how to thrive alongside their peers. But they won’t have to learn all this on their own: there’s an entire community of adults dedicated to their wellbeing. This team includes arts instructors, academic teachers, and Residence Life faculty.

“Our team strives to build a sense of community and belonging for ninth graders,” says Michael Kern, Director of Student Support Services. “We work hard to make what can be a really big campus feel smaller, with a tighter sense of community.”

The team addresses the student experience from every angle, ensuring that students who require extra guidance and encouragement get what they need. In addition, they build essential life skills directly into the curriculum. Interlochen’s freshman instructors dedicate portions of class time to subjects like managing email and setting up schedules. This training helps equip students for success in their academic and professional lives.

Advisories for personal attention

While the classroom is one of the most important places where learning happens, it’s also helpful to share information in smaller, more personal settings. Before they even arrive on campus, freshman students meet one-on-one with academic counseling staff to determine their direction for the year.

“Academic and college counselors are meeting with 100% of new students,” says Chad Gapinski, Executive Director of Advising and Counseling Services. “If you're a new freshman, you're going to talk to your academic and college counselor before you arrive in order to better understand your trajectory and receive personalized curricular recommendations.”

In addition, each freshman is placed in an advisory group with two faculty members and 8-10 other students. Advisories meet each week to discuss specific topics, and serve as a safe environment for students to build relationships with their peers and supportive adults.

“We assist our students in developing the skill sets that will allow them to find great success,” says Gapinski. “We work within our freshman advisories to help students become adept in areas like building healthy relationships, time management, communicating effectively, solving problems, collaborating with others and numerous other soft skills.”

Our residence life team has a real passion for working with high school aged students, as well as top-notch credentials.

Elizabeth Stuk, Dean of Student Life

Building community through residence life

One of the most important areas where student support happens is through residence life. At Interlochen, the residence life staff is made up of experienced and educated counselors, many of whom hold degrees in psychology or education.

“Our residence life team has a real passion for working with high school aged students, as well as top-notch credentials,” says Elizabeth Stuk, Dean of Student Life.Residence life counselors encourage students to develop healthy habits like doing laundry, establishing a consistent sleep routine, and navigating roommate conflicts, which helps create a culture of maturity and respect.

“There's a lot of community-building that happens in the residence halls,” says Stuk.

In addition, the residence halls serve as a hub for social activities. Events are posted on large whiteboards, and counselors help students navigate the process of exploring their interests and getting involved across campus.

“Another big thing that they do within the residence hall is celebrate birthdays and holidays for students on campus,” says Stuk. “We want to provide that homey experience so that students feel safe, at home, and comfortable on our campus.”

Working closely with parents and families

At Interlochen Arts Academy, faculty members create room for open dialogues so that parents are included in their student’s journeys all year long. This year, Interlochen will be adding a webinar dedicated to goal setting for freshman and sophomore as part of a Family Info Series for parents of boarding school students.

“It's just one small step toward making parents feel supported,” says Gapinski. “We think of our Academy parents and families as partners on the other side of the table. If they know what to expect, then they can help guide their students.”

Sometimes, a student has needs that require special attention. When appropriate, Interlochen faculty members work closely with individual families to develop support plans for their students.

“Whenever a student needs some additional support, we meet with that family and the student as well. We take time to sit down and really learn about the student,” says Kern. “Together, we come up with a plan to support that individual student.”

We think of our Academy parents and families as partners on the other side of the table. If they know what to expect, then they can help guide their students.

Chad Gapinski, Executive Director of Advising and Counseling Services

Extra help with academics

For students who need extra help with schoolwork, Interlochen Arts Academy offers the Academic Center for Enrichment (ACE). The two main services offered are Assisted Study and tutoring.

“Interlochen Assisted Study is an enhanced study hall experience, usually with multiple adults overseeing and supporting,” says Gapinski. “Depending on the period, you could have a math instructor helping students needing help with math, or you might have an English instructor assisting students with their writing or literary analysis.”  

In addition, Interlochen offers a robust tutoring program that includes faculty, student, and professional tutoring. All academic and artistic instructors are available to help students during scheduled daily office hours. For students who thrive most when working with their peers, student tutoring is available during evening study hours and by appointment during the day. Interlochen also works with several independent, professional tutors who can provide either in-person or remote tutoring over Zoom.

What about homesickness?

With the considerable distance from home making an impact on almost every boarding school family, it's no surprise that parents are concerned about their students becoming homesick. But once students get involved in their classes and social lives, they quickly adjust to the boarding school experience.

“Once kids get into everything, and they're part of their arts division and absorbed into a new friend group that becomes their family, they’re usually not homesick,” says Kern.  “What actually ends up being harder for them is going home for that first break, because they're used to having so much independence and taking care of themselves.”

Gapinski adds that many families see tremendous new confidence in their students when they do return for breaks.

“I hear a lot of positive feedback from families saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it's been only two months, but my student came home for fall break, and I cannot believe how much they've grown. They’re mature, and they’ve grown in their independence.’ I think this is one of the greatest things that we can provide to our students.”

A supportive campus

At Interlochen, support comes from many sources—from the Campus Safety team to the 50 health professionals at Interlochen's Health Services to the librarians at Bonisteel Library. Together, these individuals work to make Interlochen a safe, fun, and inspiring place for student artists to grow into their best selves.

“I might be the Director of Student Support, but actual student support comes from every adult on campus from facilities through our president, Trey Devey. That is the Student Support Team," says Kern. "Together, we focus on caring for our students in a really collaborative way."

Learn more about Student Support at Interlochen Arts Academy.