Lael Raven had executed an axle turn more than a hundred times before. She leaped and spun around, tucking her feet under. But this time as she landed, her right foot rolled — and she fell to the ground.
A sense of cold immediately rushed through her entire body, she recalls.
Just 14 at the time, Lael was more than 1,200 miles away from home and her parents. She was in excruciating pain and facing emergency room X-rays.
But she knew she could handle those things.
More than anything, she dreaded that her perfect summer — five weeks dancing at the competitive Miami City Ballet Summer Intensive — would come to an abrupt end.
"Summer intensives help with your career. They give you insight into the life of a professional dancer," says Lael, a sophomore at Laurel School in Shaker Heights. "It looks good on resumes to say that you went away. Resumes are a huge thing when you're auditioning for companies or training programs."
Lael is part of a growing trend of teens who view summers as a way to gain resume-worthy experience for careers or college admissions. Gradually, the days of sleeping late and hanging with friends at the pool are being replaced by opportunities to explore careers, travel internationally, take classes or help others in need.
The experiences often end up as great fodder for the college admissions essay — but sometimes they come with great sacrifices for the student.
Eric Ma, a senior at University School, gave up his senior year on the golf team to do a summer internship with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Beijing.
It caused him to miss tryouts, making him unable to compete.
"That was a huge trade-off," Eric says. "I ultimately decided to go to China because I had never done anything that cool in my life. Having no regrets is important, especially when weighing an opportunity that could change your outlook on life."
Eric spent three weeks in Beijing compiling research on whether two doses of the HPV vaccine could be as effective as the standard three-dose treatment in preventing cervical cancer. Reducing the extra dose in the regimen would save both costs and lives. At the end of his summer, he presented his findings to the program supervisor.
"It honestly pushed me out of my comfort zone," Eric says. "I've never seen that much personal growth in such a short period."
The experience had a profound impact on Eric's future.
"These are people who are literally saving millions of lives," he says. "When you get to work with them every day, and listen to their ideas — and add your own input sometimes — it was really inspiring to me. That vigor and passion for making a change is something I've tried to adapt to my life."
Ask most teens why they don't just kick back in the summer, and many will shrug off the question with the simple answer that they prefer to be busy.
But Brian Capron, a senior at St. Ignatius High School, confesses that he used to like to spend summers the old-fashioned way: doing nothing. "The last couple summers I just spent lying back and thinking, Wow, I'm glad school's over!" he admits.
But that changed the summer before his senior year when he went on a three-week educational trip to Ireland and then a one-week mission trip to Louisville, Kentucky, through St. Ignatius.
"I felt personally like I should be doing more," Brian says. "I really need to start seeing things with my own eyes instead of hearing them from my parents or my friends, so that was my huge driving force."
That intrinsic motivation, experts say, is the key to whether a teen should do an intense summer experience, especially one that involves being away from home.
Too often, parents are the ones pushing. And high achieving teens can have trouble pushing back.
"Parents need to check in with themselves," says Dr. Margaret Stager, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist at MetroHealth Medical Center. "Say, 'Am I really pushing for this experience because I think it's going to look good on the application? Have I been honest and allowed my teen to really express how they feel about this?' "
A child's passions, energy level and developmental stage all play a key role in the type of summer experience they're able to handle, says Dr. Ellen Rome, a head of the center for adolescent medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital.
"You really have to know your kid and stack the deck so that it becomes easy for a kid to rise to the occasion and flourish, rather than flounder," Rome says.
"Service trips should be done if that allows the child to follow their passions and gain empathy or skills or other valuable traits," she continues. "It should never be approached as a checkbox to get into that best college."
In fact, Rome often says, "The privileged experience does not necessarily mean the privileged admission."
That's a sentiment echoed by Lee Friedman, executive director of College Now Greater Cleveland.
"Sometimes families can spend a lot of money to buy experiences for their children that are enriching to the child, but don't really add that much to their chances of getting into college," Friedman says. "What's important to college admissions officers is what the students are, not what the parents can do for the student."
Summer experiences are just a small piece of the college admissions puzzle, says Keeon Gregory, director of college counseling at Lake Ridge Academy in North Ridgeville.
When senior Carly Tellerd told Gregory as a freshman that she wanted to go to New York University, he laid it all out on the line.
"You've got to have the grades. You've got to have the scores. You've got to have the passion," he told her. "Carly was unwavering."
She was so adamant, in fact, that last year she applied to a competitive summer program at NYU. She was accepted and decided to give the campus a test run, taking classes alongside college students in travel and tourism, writing and math.
"When I was there, I tried to reach out to every single person that I could and tried to make as many connections as I could," she says. "That not only enhanced my time when I was there, but it left an impression."
Carly got a letter of recommendation from her travel and tourism professor and a meeting with the admissions staffer who represented Ohio.
"When I came home I told my parents I can't see myself living anywhere else," she says. "They were completely on board with applying early decision."
But still, Gregory cautioned her that attending NYU's summer program was not a guarantee. Sixty-thousand students apply to NYU every year, so he made sure she remained open to other schools.
She was accepted and will start NYU in the fall, majoring in travel and tourism with a minor in theater.
Terry McCue, assistant head of school and director of college counseling at Hathaway Brown School, also cautions parents about putting too much stock in summer programs.
"You do not have to spend a single penny to have a very valid summer of growth," McCue says. "It can involve work. It can involve volunteering."
Some colleges do, however, ask prospective students to explain on an application how they spent the past two summers.
"They're really seeking insight into you as someone who might be a member of their community," McCue says. "This is about saying, 'I happen to have 12 weeks of free time, what are the areas that I'm interested in that might behoove me to delve a little bit deeper into them because I am genuinely interested?'"
Exploring new areas is the reason Morgan Whaley, a junior at Hathaway Brown, spent last summer learning Arabic and working in a research lab.
"Summer is a time when I'm free. I don't have to worry about going to school, so it's the best time to try something new," Morgan says. "Taking Arabic was kind of an impulse decision, but I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity because I love to try new things. It was amazing."
Arabic was just one of Hathaway Brown's many unique summer classes and camps, which include topics such as economic policy and jazz singing. Morgan enjoyed the language so much that she tried to talk her dad into a summer program in Jordan to learn Arabic in a native environment.
He adamantly said no.
She attended class five days a week for five weeks, from 8 a.m. to noon. Then, she'd get in a van to go directly to Case Western Reserve University, where she worked in the orthopedic bioengineering lab of professor Ozan Akkus studying actions of specific bone cells as part of Hathaway Brown's year-round Science Research and Engineering Program. She also spent the previous summer in Akkus' lab, works twice a week during the school year and will work in the lab this summer.
Because of her lab work, she is considering a career in medicine as an orthopedic physician. And, as far as using her Arabic, she's already thought about that too. "Cleveland Clinic has a hospital in Dubai," she says.
Tim Holman, a junior at Hawken School, also spent last summer working in a CWRU lab. Hawken's STEM program — which includes three semesters of learning about academic research, including reading journal articles and learning grant-writing — required Tim to find his own mentor, design his own project, work 160 hours during the summer and then present his results at a school symposium.
From there, he became one of 12 students who will present this month at the Northeast Ohio Science and Engineering Fair at Cleveland State University.
Tim worked with Philip Feng, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, on safety requirements of using the human body as a transmission medium for Body Area Networks, which are devices a patient either wears, carries or has implanted to monitor his or her health, such as heart rate and blood pressure.
"A BAN network in place on a patient can alert the hospital, even before they have a heart attack, through measuring changes in their vital signs," Tim explains.
The summer experience changed the way Tim looks at his career.
"It gave me a realistic option for my future," Tim says. "I really didn't know what it was like to be an engineer; what it was like to research something; what it was like to improve a device."
And one of the best parts of the experience, Tim says, was the flexibility to still enjoy a family vacation and a weeklong camp, along with the work.
Some summer experiences are less about a career path and more about seeing the world beyond Northeast Ohio.
Becca Ilic, a junior at Solon High School, has spent the last three summers traveling with the Girl Scouts to China, Scandinavia and Australia.
"The most memorable thing from the trip was scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I was extremely nervous because I've never been before but once we got under the water it was amazing," says Becca, who experienced its vibrant coral, held sea cucumbers and even fed a huge school of fish. "By the end of the excursion, I didn't want to go back up to the surface."
She says her parents hope the travels will help instill confidence in her, and allow her to adapt to unfamiliar environments and make the world feel small.
"They are helping us handle whatever life will throw at us," she says.
When St. Ignatius senior Brian Capron traveled to Ireland, he says it changed his outlook on the world.
"It was a tiny little corner of the world, but there was just so much there, so much culture, so many people, so many things that I had never seen or heard before," Brian says. "It made me realize that's probably what most of the world is like. I don't know anything. I had that realization that, Hey, you're a teenager and you actually don't know everything."
For Laurel's Lael Raven, Florida seemed a world away when she sprained her ankle. Still, she stayed in Miami, first watching classes and taking notes, then slowly rehabbing. She was back doing parts of classes in just over a week. Three weeks later, she was able to perform in the culminating show.
"Dance is the place that I go to get away from the day, to get away from whatever I have in my life," she says. "It's a way for me to let go and really express who I am."
As parents decide whether a summer program —- especially travel abroad — will be good for their teen, experts recommend taking into account three key components.
Finances. Strapping the family financially for a summer experience isn't worth it for college admissions. "If your family can't afford to pay for expensive enrichment activities, it doesn't mean you're going to be penalized," says Lee Friedman of College Now Greater Cleveland. "College admissions officers are fully aware that not all students have the privilege of going to camp for weeks."
Still, students can help contribute to the trip or raise spending money, even if it's a gift from grandma, says Dr. Margaret Stager of MetroHealth Medical Center.
Solon High School junior Becca Ilic did just that. "Because the other girls and I helped raise a lot of money for the trip, my parents know that it's teaching us that hard work really pays off," says Becca, who traveled to Australia with the Girl Scouts last summer. "It makes the trips that much sweeter."
Who Is With Them? While University School senior Eric Ma spent three weeks in China interning for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, his father conducted business in the country. So father and son lived together in a hotel. "We really bonded," Eric says.
Jim Brennan, the director of Irish studies at St. Ignatius High School, takes students on a three-week trip to Ireland every summer. He frequently gets questions from parents, ranging from "Will they get to church on Sunday?" to "Is it safe?" "They worry about the free time the kids are going to have," Brennan says. "For many, it's the first time they're away from their families for any extended period of time, but they're with people who care a great deal about them."
Anxiety. If your child is nervous about a trip, find out why. "Is that nervousness with this kid something where a gentle nudge and support system will help them recognize their roots and find their wings?" says Dr. Ellen Rome of the Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital. "Or does the kid need some time to grow other roots?"
There are also unspoken signs of anxiety to look for, Stager says, including trouble sleeping, changes in behavior such as acting out or missing curfew, or passive-aggressive actions such as not filling out forms on time. "All of a sudden some new behaviors are there that weren't there before," she says. "That's a red flag for parents to take a step back and say, 'What's going on here?' "