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Students – including Zac Mitchell, Elizabeth Burns – build community during GHP

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Even though they’re only a couple of days into the four-week long Governor’s Honors Program being held at Berry College, local students Elizabeth Burns and Zac Mitchell are already seeing the program’s benefits, both as students and as people.

“My brain has just been sharpened already,” said Mitchell, a rising junior at Coosa High School.

The program for gifted and talented rising juniors and seniors is at Berry for the first time — it was held at Valdosta State University for 32 years — bringing 650 students onto the campus. Instructors also come from around the state, while some Berry faculty members are also participating.

“It’s been the neatest thing already,” said Burns, a rising junior at Rome High.

Students pick a minor to focus on in addition to their major during the residential summer program, which is the longest running governor’s school in the nation and the only one that is free of charge for participants, according to Stephanie Shelton, the program’s dean of instruction.

There is one mandate for the program’s curriculum, Shelton said, that it be dramatically different than the education they receive in high school. To this end, Shelton said the aim is that when students leave the program July 15, they have been instilled with a desire to learn independently.

Mitchell’s major is theater and his minor is applied songwriting and recording, while Burns’ major is French and her minor is visual arts. Both are the only students from Rome and Floyd County to attend the program this year.

Mitchell has performed in 22 shows in the past six years, invigorating his passion for the thrill of being onstage.

Mitchell said the opportunity to work with some of the best young actors and actresses in the state is an unmatched experience, where they will further develop their skills “like iron sharpening iron.”

“As a theater major, it will improve every aspect of my performance. Not only digging deeper into every role, learning psychology even to help me understand human nature,” he said.

Burns started learning French in seventh grade but has yet to master fluency, she said. However, participating in the program may get here to that point, or close to it, as she will speak the language constantly while delving into the culture, history and literature of France, all things that she loves, she said.

Shelton said as part of providing a “holistic education,” students are placed with peers who have a different major and who come from a different place. This pairing is meant as a means of teaching kids to negotiate a shared space while building new relationships, many of which last far beyond the time frame of the program, she said.

Both Mitchell and Burns said this exposure to people with varying perspectives and interests is vital to creating a community within the program.

“Growing up in Rome, Georgia, it’s not an extremely diverse place,” Burns said. “Everyone has very similar views, everyone knows each other, so it’s really, really, really cool and beneficial to see other people’s ideals and cultures represented all in this place.”

Shelton said it’s “almost baffling” how smooth the program’s transition to Berry has been.

“They are mesmerized by the deer,” she said of the students who are visiting Berry for the first time.