One:One with CTY’s Executive Director
By Melissa Simmons
CTY’s executive director Amy Shelton is no stranger to organizational challenges. In 2019, when the University tapped her to be CTY’s interim executive director in addition to continuing her role as director of research, Shelton navigated CTY through the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on everything, including CTY’s mission. On October 1, 2022, Shelton embarked on her permanent appointment as executive director, a significant milestone in CTY’s new road map, after a challenging post-shut-down return to on-campus programs this past summer. I spoke with the new executive director to learn more about her interests, background, approach to leadership, and vision for CTY.
Now that you’ve transitioned into the executive director role, what’s first on your to-do list?
I am having discussions across the organization about what it means to serve advanced learners in a post-COVID-19, 21st century environment. The educational landscape has changed so much in the past two years. Kids are doing things differently, and families are thinking about education differently. We need to make sure CTY remains relevant—and that everyone understands the value we bring to the gifted education space.
A huge part of our conversations surrounds inclusion and ways we can make our programs financially and programmatically accessible. We are also discussing and incorporating immediate changes that will make our online and on-campus experience a great one. This includes hiring staff far in advance of program start dates and supporting those instructors as they work with our students. Overall, I’d like to think of my first few months as a revisioning and stabilizing time for CTY. I want us to honor our traditions but also work on what needs to change.
What first led you to CTY?
I’ve worked in many Johns Hopkins University roles since 2002, but I never thought I’d end up working in education. I’m a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist by training and originally took a path like most people with my academic background. I was doing post-doctoral work in brain imaging at Stanford University when JHU’s Dept of Psychological and Brain Sciences recruited me as a faculty member to do functional imaging and teach statistics. A lot of my work focused on human behavior, the ways we learn, and why individuals thrive in certain settings over others. These topics sparked my curiosity about education and how school environments affect a child’s ability to think and learn. When I reached out to schools to gain understanding, my interests in other areas of education developed.
One day in 2012, the executive director of CTY reached out to me for advice on how they might shape a joint research role between the center and the Johns Hopkins School of Education. During our conversation, she asked if I might be interested in the role. After months of working through ideas, I accepted the position—and have loved being a part of CTY ever since.
If I were to write your biography, what are some facts I would include?
I was born in Virginia and grew up in the Chicago suburbs. I have a lot of hobbies, but two that define me most are my love of music and the outdoors. I love to attend live performances and occasionally travel up to the mountains for a hike. I’ll try any and every craft there is and am known across CTY for love of LEGO and my baking abilities. I make my own personalized cupcakes and 3-D cakes as a way to relax. I love animals – cats, dogs, squirrels, bears – and have three cats I talk about nearly as much as my own child. I also have a diverse collection of books and read a lot of things older CTYers would read, including classical literature, fiction, non-fiction and topics by authors whose life experiences are different from mine. I am currently engrossed in Wajahat Ali’s Go Back to Where you Came From, and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is next on my list.
For education, I completed my undergraduate program at Illinois State University in rural Illinois, graduate work at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and post-doctoral work at Stanford University in California. It was fun for me and my husband to live in different cities across the U.S. before coming to Baltimore to work with the University 20 years ago.
I also have a son who is preparing to graduate from a Baltimore City high school and just aged out of most CTY programming. He loved the CTY math and engineering courses he took, and he had a chance to do some spectacular travel with me and my husband as part of CTY’s past educational travel programs.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career? What did it teach you?
My biggest professional challenge thus far was leading CTY though COVID-19. When I first took the helm as interim executive director in 2019, it was an incredibly fun and exciting time at CTY. We were celebrating our 40th anniversary and had a large number of students enrolled in our programs. My main responsibility was to continue the great things we were doing and determine ways we could do even more for our gifted learners and families—until COVID-19 hit.
We had to close our Hong Kong site, and right behind that, announce the cancellation of summer programs in the U.S. Everyone transitioned from in-person to remote work and had to figure out ways to navigate a new normal. It was tough to maintain operational efficiency and keep employees excited about the work we do, especially those who lost loved ones. But CTY rallied together, and we launched LIVE courses and the online SCAT test in response to the pandemic. The resilience of our staff taught me that if you have the right attitude and the right people around you, things will get done. The experience also changed the way I prioritize tasks and my understanding of how much interpersonal communications drives professional outcomes. I worry far less about the small things, and although I'm a work in progress, I am more confident now in my leadership skills than I’ve ever been.
Can you think of a CTY project you’re especially proud to have been part of?
One of my favorite projects was launching CTY’s Baltimore Emerging Scholars Program. When I first started working here, the executive director told me Baltimore City students weren’t qualifying for the program. I knew firsthand that bright students lived in Baltimore, so we decided to work with Baltimore City Public Schools to determine whether it was a testing issue. We explained the mission of CTY and asked what assistance they needed with gifted education. We determined an alternative way to identify their bright students and that discussion led to a formal in-school partnership over the last eight years.
Where do you see CTY in the next two years?
I want people to see CTY as more than a summer camp. I want us to show that we are leaders in this field and resume a more vocal role in what it means to serve advanced kids. I want our programs to be aligned with this vision so that we can deliver on our mission to reach advanced learners from every background, nurture their capabilities, and help them to make a difference in their communities.