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“The Best Week Ever” is a bold statement. When one hears it, the first thought might be of a lavish family vacation—not a college’s summer program. And yet, these are the key words participants of the Experience Christendom Summer Program use time and again when describing the transformative time they spent in Virginia for one week—a week that provided them with the faith-filled educational experience they needed during such a formative time in their lives.

Founded in the summer of 1999 by alumna Karla Kuykendall Hester ’99, the program has undergone many changes over the years—beginning with its name. Originally called the Christendom College High School Summer College, the program was later retitled the Experience Christendom Summer Program (ECSP). Nowadays, while ECSP is still officially its name, the participants typically refer to it as “The Best Week Ever” when talking about it with friends and family.

Close to 3,000 students have attended the program over its 21-year history. Both the benefactors who have helped make the program affordable and the high school-aged students who attend discover a community that truly seeks to learn, live, and love the Catholic faith.

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of Instaurare Magazine. The full issue can be read HERE, and you can subscribe to Instaurare Magazine for free HERE.

When the program first started, it was simply two sessions of a two-week program for up to 40 students. In the 21 years since, it has evolved into five one-week sessions over the summer, with 280 students attending each year—thus making an even bigger impact on today’s college-bound youth.

These extraordinary numbers raise the question: Why do students keep coming, often in such high numbers that waiting lists are formed? What makes the program so inspiring for everyone involved, year after year?

The late Dr. Patrick Keats taught ECSP students for 20 years.

For participant Kevin O’Connor, his eyes opened for the first time to the beauty and joy of the Catholic faith during the program—all within a community of peers and professors striving for the same ultimate goal.

“It was the first time I was taught by Catholic professors, and it challenged me to think in a way I never had before,” says O’Connor. “I also developed genuine friendships with other young Catholics from across the country, giving me a strong foundation to move on to college and the working world while maintaining a strong Catholic identity.”

O’Connor’s experience is one that has been shared by many over the years, including all of his siblings—each of whom has attended this program. In a culture where Christ is often stripped out of education and social opportunities for young people, the high school summer program strives to give the opposite experience.

The parents of participants are amazed at the changes they see in their children after spending just one week on the college’s campus.

“I cannot thank you enough for the outstanding experience that my son was so fortunate to have at your ‘best week ever,’” says a mother of an attendee. “I can tell you that I have not observed him to be so happy, free, and at peace…since toddler-hood! Everything from the fantastic counselors, like-minded and very bright peers rooted in their faith, discussions over the greats and their great books, the swing dance, and the kayaking… left a much-needed, indelible mark on my son. Thank you for your representation of what college should be, how faith can be alive in our teens during this difficult age, and how happy and freeing it feels for these teens to live out their interests while embracing their faith.”

The plan of life that the program introduces to students has had a transformative effect—one that is inspiring to the students, their parents, and to donors as well.

Advertised as the most-popular, well-attended, and highly ranked pre-college summer program of its kind, the ECSP would not be able to offer the financial deals and discounts that it does without its family of committed donors—especially Jack and Leslie Murphy. Close to 10 years ago, the Murphy’s read a story in the Instaurare asking for donations to the program in order to allow the admissions office to offer discounts to interested students with financial difficulties. They were moved to make a donation that year, and every subsequent year since.

Jack and Leslie Murphy.

No student has ever been turned down from the program due to an inability to pay the $500 program fee—all thanks to the Murphy’s and other faithful donors.

“We feel privileged to be able to contribute to Christendom College’s ECSP, which allows high school students to experience what it would be like to attend a truly Catholic college,” says Leslie Murphy. “We are concerned that so many young people seem to leave the church in their college years because of the decidedly liberal and anti-Christian stance being taken by secular education. We also realize that not every Catholic college or university is truly keeping the faith.”

Students—who come to the campus either reluctantly or excited—are astounded by what they experience. According to the current program director, admissions director Sam Phillips, “students are taken on an emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and all-encompassing Catholic roller coaster ride where at the end, they just can’t wait to come back for more.”

Indeed, over 70% of Christendom’s current freshmen class are alumni of the summer program, and when asked who or what had the most influence on their decision to attend Christendom, the ECSP was the #1 choice.

The summer program counselors—both past and present—also feel an acute sense of gratitude for the opportunities that they have had to serve these young people in their search for the best college for them.

2020’s ECSP counselors.

“It has definitely made me realize the impact that one Catholic can have on another if they see you really trying to strive for holiness,” says Brian Hicks ’22, a current counselor for the program. “As a counselor, you are with the high school students all day, outside their classes, so they really see you as what Christendom has to show in their students. It’s made me realize that I don’t want to just look the part, but I want to truly embody what they are seeing. And in striving for that, it’s helped me realize that I’m not always going to reach that holiness I want, but if I keep God close and I am open to His grace, I’ll keep progressing to what He wants me to be.”

The transforming impact of the program is not just restricted to the students—these counselors have seen their lives change in extraordinary ways as well. A number of them have even gone on to become priests, including Frs. Matthew Rensch ’11 and Nicholas Blank ’13. According to Fr. Blank, when he came to the summer program, he had an interest in becoming a priest. After his weeklong experience under the guidance of then-counselor Matthew Rensch, Blank knew that he wanted to be around Christendom and the men who attend the college, for he saw in them true goodness, integrity, strength of character, and virtue.

Fr. Rensch went on to become the head counselor for the summer program, serve as the head resident assistant, play varsity basketball, be awarded the college’s student achievement award, and, following gradation, enter the seminary and be ordained a priest for the Diocese of Vermont. Fr. Blank followed in his footsteps by becoming the head summer program counselor, playing varsity basketball, also being awarded the college’s student achievement award, and then being ordained as a priest—Christendom’s 91st alumnus priest—for the Diocese of Arlington in 2019. Fr. Blank found his vocation, just like Fr. Rensch, and it all started during one week in the Shenandoah.

Fr. Matthew Rensch and Fr. Nicholas Blank both served as summer program counselors while they were students.

Through the program, students, parents, donors, and counselors encounter a remarkable transformation, and not one that Hester could have anticipated when she founded the program over 20 years ago.

“Looking back, I never would have imagined that this type of program would have lasted this long. Although it has developed and changed over the years and has truly become the best showcase of the Christendom experience, I didn’t think it would make it past the first summer,” says Hester. “God’s plan is always so amazing to look back at, especially in light of the many years of success, the many students brought to Christendom, the many counselors that felt personally fulfilled, and I think we can honestly say, the many souls saved. God has blessed so many through this program.”

The Murphy’s agree: “Christendom College’s summer program has been successful in bringing students to Christendom, a fine institution of higher education that we believe is keeping the Catholic faith in a way that is attractive to our youth.”

Year after year, student after student, the Experience Christendom Summer Program continues to enlighten the minds, strengthen the wills, and encourage the hearts of the participants, giving them the knowledge and courage to promote the truth, goodness, and beauty of the Catholic faith, as they remember fondly the summer they experienced The Best Week Ever.

Learn more about the Experience Christendom Summer Program here.

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