COLUMBIA — On a summer afternoon in 1985, Gov. John Ashcroft addressed 310 of Missouri's most-accomplished high school sophomores, the inaugural class of the Missouri Scholars Academy .
"Give it your best shot," Ashcroft said, according to a June 1985 Columbia Daily Tribune article. "That's your challenge for the next three weeks. No pain, no gain."
The Missouri Scholars Academy is an intensive, three-week program for the top 1 percent of Missouri students to gain an in-depth understanding of their favorite subjects beyond the scope of traditional education. This year's academy, which starts Sunday, marks the program's 30th anniversary.
Among the scholars Ashcroft addressed that day was Robin Wenneker, then a rising 15-year-old junior at Rock Bridge High School. Wenneker had become familiar with the academy through newspaper articles and an information session, but she still wasn't sure what to expect, she said.
"There was just starting to be that talk about parents as teachers and gifted education, and this was kind of revolutionary," Wenneker said.
The idea of tailoring education specifically for gifted students caught on. Over the past 30 years, more than 9,500 students have spent three weeks attending summer classes and sleeping in MU's residence halls, according to an MU News Bureau release.
When the academy was founded, it provided students with the opportunity to learn about alternative "avenues of learning" compared to traditional schooling, Mark Blount, who taught chemistry classes for the academy in 1985 and 1986, said. Blount has taught AP chemistry at Hickman High School since 1983. The academy's faculty also have to apply and are chosen by a selection committee, according to the program's website.
"We had more open-ended ability to ask questions, investigate and go wherever the lab was going to take us, while kids at the time would sit in the classroom and take notes and not have much opportunity to investigate,” Blount said of the differences between the academy and conventional classrooms.
For three decades, the academy has hosted rising high school juniors who are in the top 1 percent of the state’s students in terms of academics, according to the news release. Students are first nominated by their schools and then chosen by an MU committee based on intelligence tests, grade-point average, essays and leadership skills, according to the academy’s website.
For 25 years starting in 1985, state funding covered room, board and tuition for scholars. Their out-of-pocket expenses were only transportation to and from Columbia, school supplies and spending money, according to a June 1985 Missourian article.
But that changed in 2009. That year, the legislature cut joint funding for the academy and the Missouri Fine Arts Academy from roughly $700,000 to about $250,000 in 2010, according to previous Missourian reporting. Since 2010, scholars have had to pay a $500 fee for the three-week experience, according to the program's website. Students who qualify for reduced price lunches pay $350.
"I'm sad about that, but I would rather have the opportunity for people to attend than not have the program at all," Wenneker said.
The academy offers students different "majors" in the fields of mathematics, science, social studies and humanities, according to the program's website. Scholars also choose "minors" from those fields. In addition, scholars attend a personal development class, tailored specifically to needs and interests of gifted students.
Wenneker's majored in history and minored in philosophy at the academy. She enjoyed exploring her academic interests through visits to places like Ellis Library and by being surrounded by other talented students, she said.
"(The academy) just puts you with a bunch of people that are just going to be as motivated as you, and it takes out all the noise you're going to experience day-to-day in high school," Wenneker said. "It just lets you go and soak up knowledge."
But the academy also impacts students outside of the classroom. For Kelsey Harper, a 2012 scholar and recent Rock Bridge High School graduate, the most memorable moment happened the last night when her roommate gave her a drawing of a globe with the word "change" written on it.
"She said thank you for helping her see the world in a different way and expanding her thought process and imagination," Harper said. "It wasn’t my personal realization but the fact that I was there and I was a part of it was really powerful for me."
Scholars have the opportunity to remain involved with the academy by working as office staff. KelLeigh Bryant, a 2012 scholar and recent Columbia Independent School graduate, is doing just that this summer. This year, scholars are staying in MU's Mark Twain Hall.
"We arrive a few days before the scholars and turn Mark Twain into MSA," Bryant said in an email. "We make sure everything is ready, including ourselves, for a fast-paced three weeks of amazing kids and amazing things."
Some of the academy's alumni have gone on to win local and national recognition, according to the program's website. Andrew McCall who attended the academy in 2004, became a Rhodes Scholar in 2010, and Eric Young, who attended the academy in 2009, was named a 2011 Presidential Scholar.
Wenneker graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from MU in 1991, and a master's degree in business administration from Washington University in St. Louis in 2002. She now serves as Mizzou Alumni Association Rules Committee chairwoman and on the campaign committees for MU 's College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources and Mizzou Libraries, among other positions.
The academy impacted Wenneker through her college years and in her professional life, she said.
"I love to learn," Wenneker said. "(The academy) gave me the permission to never stop learning. It reinforced to me how important learning is for my entire lifetime."