TAMS, the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, is an advanced placement program at the University of North Texas where I finished my junior and senior years of high school while simultaneously acquiring 72 hours of college credit. It’s a relatively small program that accepts ~187 students a year from Texas high schools. All 374 students1 live in the same dorm on the UNT campus and take roughly the same classes, including honors biology, chemistry, physics, pre-cal, and calculus among others.
Your first thought is probably “that must have given you a leg up academically”. And while you are correct, that’s not the most important thing that I acquired from the program. The most important thing was the close circle of friends that have changed my life for the better.
I grew up and went to high school in Littlefield, a small farming community northwest of Lubbock in the Texas panhandle. My sophomore class had about 100 people in it — people I had known all throughout my academic career. I wasn’t the smartest person in my class (although if asked at the time, I might have arrogantly said I was) but I was hands-down the nerdiest. Like many small towns in Texas, the focus of the school was on football, not on academics, and I was no jock. While I had friends, I didn’t really feel like I belonged.
TAMS changed all of that. I went from having 99 classmates who were unlike me to 373 classmates who were very like me. I went from feeling like one of the smartest people in school to feeling like the dumbest. I learned some very much needed social skills and was challenged academically like never before. It was exhilarating, overwhelming, and the best thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life.
I made a core group of friends that I cherish to this day: Janice, Matt, Jenny, John, Shaun, Jodi, Stona, and Karen. We’ve helped each other through rough times, celebrated great times, and stayed in touch despite the years and being far-flung across the US and the globe. Somehow, we even manage to have mini-reunions and got all 9 of us together in 2013:
Without TAMS and these friends, my life would be far different and far, far worse. And while AP classes and the like can help with the academic leg up, they can’t replace the camaraderie and community that a program like TAMS provides.
Many states have programs like TAMS; check out the Wikipedia entry for the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science and Technology for many of them. If you know a bright, socially-awkward high school freshman or sophomore interested in STEM fields, encourage them to seek out similar opportunities — it might just change their life.