The Benefits And Challenges Of Intensive Summer Programs


People might think that it’s a bit strange for students to spend their summer not only at school but also studying genocide.

Last summer, I was one of those students attending the Genocide and Human Rights University Program organized by the International Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (a division of the Zoryan Institute) and hosted by the University of Toronto.  It was an enjoyable and educational experience for me.

Below I share some of the benefits (and challenges) of attending an intensive summer program.

What are intensive summer programs?

These programs are sometimes called intensive summer programs, summer institutes or summer short courses.  They are called intensive for a reason, too!  The program I attended included more than 65 hours of instruction – the equivalent of a term-long course – in only 10 days.

This is fairly typical for summer programs: this summer I will attend the Venice School of Human Rights organized by the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation; it includes 10 full days of classes.

Many of these programs are designed for graduate students, but some also accept upper-year undergraduates.  The program I attended was open to upper-year undergraduates, graduate students and even professors who wanted to learn more to be more effective teachers.

These programs are taught by several experts – including academics and practitioners – rather than by one professor.  The program I attended was taught by more than 10 experts from around the world.  Some of these experts were academics (from a variety of disciplines) and some were practitioners (for example, one was a veteran of the Canadian Army who was in Rwanda during the genocide).

Universities organize some of these programs and others are organized by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  Your university and/or department might have a list of such summer programs or institutes.


  • Experience another campus.  If a university organizes an intensive program, they likely specialize in that field, so you might want to attend a program at an institution to which you might apply for a post-graduate degree or diploma.  During the program, you will meet faculty and get a sense of the campus’ resources.  You might even be able to meet a potential supervisor.
  • Get experience abroad.  This can be a more affordable way to study abroad instead of completing a whole year or degree abroad.  There are still costs involved, however, and scholarships are rare.
  • Network.  You will meet students, academics and practitioners from around the world who share your interests, allowing you to build a global network.  Almost a year after attending the Genocide and Human Rights University Program, I am still in touch with other participants; we continue to share resources, offer comments on papers and share opportunities (e.g., calls for papers, conferences, etc.).
  • Specialize.  These programs allow you to specialize in a particular field in only a few weeks.  This can help you if you plan to pursue further study or work in that field.


  • Summer employment.  With attending classes during the day and reading course materials or preparing for presentations during the evening, you will not have time to work.  It might be difficult to find summer employment that allows you to take one or two weeks off, but it is not impossible.  Last summer, I knew about the program well ahead of time and was able to mention it in my cover letters and during interviews for summer jobs.
  • Transfer credits.  Obtaining credit for the course can be challenging.  Be sure to work out these details ahead of time, especially if you can only afford to take the course if you receive credit for it.
  • Visas.  Depending on what country you live in, where the program is and what you’re studying, it might be difficult to obtain a visa.  It is best to apply to these programs as early as possible because they tend to give international students quick responses so that they can obtain a visa.
  • Don’t over-commit.  You might only be in the classroom for one or two weeks, but that does not mean that the program will only take one or two weeks of your time!  Last summer, for example, I spent most of my evenings leading up the course completing readings.  After the classroom portion of the course ended, I had a paper to write for credit.  Before you enroll in a program, make sure you understand the reading and assignment requirements.
Photo credit: 2011 Thought Leaders in Brand Management Conference by Brand Management Conference – Lugano on Flickr
About the author

Elizabeth Baisley is currently studying for an Master of Arts in Political Studies at Queen's University, where she works as a teaching assistant. She recently completed her Honours Bachelor of Arts in Human Rights & Human Diversity at Wilfrid Laurier University's Brantford campus. Elizabeth's academic interest in the rights of marginalized populations translates into her volunteer work and extracurricular involvement in the fields of rights advocacy, immigrant settlement, literacy, health, environmental issues, and local democracy. In September 2013, she will begin her PhD in Politics at Princeton University.