PFEW brings together students across the state

Students come together across the state for annual summer camp at Lycoming College

The Foundation for Free Enterprise Education, headquartered in Erie, has been giving Pennsylvania high school juniors and seniors one-of-a-kind experiences since its first Pennsylvania Free Enterprise Week (PFEW) all the way back in 1979 on the campus of Clarion State Teachers College. What started out small has grown exponentially, with what will be over 46,000 students having graduated the program after this summer, said Scott Lee, vice president of marketing and development for the Foundation for Free Enterprise Education.

If that number is not impressive enough, the PFEW program had outgrown three university campuses, including Penn State University and Lock Haven University, before settling down at Lycoming College, where PFEW has been held for the last 30 years. PFEW runs for four weeks from early July to early August, the fourth week being split between Lycoming College’s and Pennsylvania College of Technology’s campuses.

Approximately 400 students for each week from all over the state come to Williamsport to learn about the American free enterprise system. Last year, students represented 63 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, Lee said, demonstrating PFEW’s educational reach.

“We market to every single public, private, parochial, cyber, charter, homeschool association all across the Commonwealth,” he said. This contributes to the strong diversity PFEW is highly regarded for.

Students are sorted into companies within specific industries, such as candy, power tools and fitness equipment, for which they must work together to develop and present a product throughout the week, Lee said. But sorting 400 students into companies is not something PFEW staff does randomly.

“None of these students are in the same teams that are from the same hometown,” Lee said. “We want a team of absolute total strangers because that emulates the real-world workforce.”

Though PFEW can easily exceed 400 participants per week, keeping the maximum capacity around 450 is also intentional to foster teamwork and multitasking among members of each company.

“If you’re in a company of 14 or 15, you’ve got to pitch in on multiple things just to get the sheer amount of work done,” he said.

Every aspect of PFEW is meticulously planned over the course of a year and a half. Although it is a business camp, however, students’ days are not just company meetings, numbers, stress and strategy — there is a lot of fun to be had and inspiration and advice to glean.

Students get to experience college life, have free time every night, a pool party, an ice cream social and much more, as well as a banquet and a dance to celebrate their efforts at the end of the week, Lee said. And even when students are on “PFEW time” between their company meetings, they get to listen to presentations from world-class speakers.

“The collection of speakers in any given week here at PFEW are the finest speakers you will ever hear in one place at one time in the world,” Lee said. PFEW speakers cover many topics, including self-esteem, bullying, life skills and motivation.

PFEW has the ability to change lives, not only for the students attending but also for people like Lee, who has been part of the program in different capacities since 1992, when he came to judge the advertising and marketing competition.

“I left that night after the banquet, saying, ‘I have to make this a part of my life,’ “ he said, who then served as a company advisor volunteer for 23 years before selling his printing business and being hired on staff.

Students who graduate from PFEW take home much more than valuable life lessons, thorough knowledge of the American free enterprise system, college scholarships and possibly even a share of stock in a well-known company — students often gain lifelong friends that can become future business partners.

“Students … will come away with 16 (or) 17 new friends that sometimes will remain friends for a lifetime,” Lee said. “There’s something (at PFEW) for everyone.”