While applying for summer jobs in 2021, I stumbled across the Princeton-Blairstown Center (PBC). I wasn’t very familiar with experiential education, but it appeared similar to the hands-on learning that I myself find to be most effective and enjoyable.

Both the 2021 and 2022 Summer Bridge Programs were hybrid due to ongoing COVID concerns. This hybrid curriculum was designed to have PBC facilitators visit the schools and parks in students’ neighborhoods Monday through Thursday, and on Friday the students would visit the PBC campus. Our students were mainly kids from historically marginalized communities in the cities of Newark, Trenton, and Camden.

One of my most memorable moments of Summer Bridge involved another facilitator and a 10-year-old student who had been displaying difficult behavior throughout the week. We asked him, "If you could have any superpower in the world, which would you choose?" The student answered, "Definitely Spidey senses, so I can always see what’s happening around me. I need to be aware at all times or else someone could hurt me." I didn’t know how to immediately respond.

My fellow facilitator and I took the time to connect with our student and provide him with a safe space to share his experiences. It became clear to me that his behavior throughout the week was, in large part, a defense mechanism to his environment. Many of our students lack spaces in which they can safely explore themselves and their relationships with peers. It was in that moment that I fully realized the importance of PBC’s work and mission.

I came back to PBC for a second summer, and the best part of returning was seeing many of my students from the previous year. A lot of the kids remembered me and greeted me with hugs. It was awesome being able to continue the connection that I’d made with them the previous summer and to be able to give them some sense of familiarity.

PBC’s 268-acre campus is filled with trails, waterfalls, and wildlife that allow children to connect with nature in ways they may not have been able to before. I feel so fortunate that I was able to give some of my students their first-ever canoeing experience and support them while they attempted their first challenge course. Almost all of Summer Bridge’s participants live and grow up in urban areas where it is nearly impossible to access natural environments such as forests and lakes. It was a joy to see program participants in a safe and spacious place to grow to their full potential.

PBC’s slogan is "A Place to Grow." Within the short span of a week, I observed growth in so many students. My time working in experiential education at the Princeton-Blairstown Center will always be with me — not only because of the impact it had on the students, but because of the impact it had on me.

Ella Opdenberg graduated with a degree in psychology from the University of Vermont. During the summers of 2021 and 2022 she served as a facilitator at the Princeton-Blairstown Center’s award-winning Summer Bridge Program.