Steps to the Summit: Sophomores Plan Their Journeys to Mountaintops, Then College

Categorized as: on June 1, 2013.


Editor’s Note: The newest crop of Summer Searchers prepares to tackle their past and future, all on the wilderness trail, this summer. Ready or not, they’re going off the grid, lugging supplies on their backs, and seeking the leader within.

By Suzanne Skees

A jittery group of Bay Area high-school sophomores perches on four rows of folding chairs in the Summer Search Silicon Valley office in San Jose. It’s a sunny spring morning, and they’ve given up their Saturday because they know they’re the lucky ones: Of 1,000 recommended for this program, only 76 got to be here. Today they’ll hear in three languages—English, Spanish, and Vietnamese—how to prepare for their first “Summer Search” experience, and it’s going to be wild: Soon they’ll be rafting, kayaking, hiking, and scaling mountain summits, with 50-pound packs on their backs and dreams of being leaders coming true each grueling day.

“You are our newest group of leaders,” executive director Carlin Johnson Politzer tells them. “You have what it takes to propel you to great things.” She stands comfortably in front of the teenagers and their parents. Like the other staff members and board volunteers, she wears an orange T-shirt with the classic Summer Search dandelion-logo: where change begins. The parents look preemptively proud; the kids look skeptical.

The Summer Search Silicon Valley Class of 2015, ready for their first summer adventure. 

Launched in 1990 by adolescent therapist Linda Mornell, Summer Search now serves 1,300 low-income high school students in seven offices across the U.S. 93% have gone to college—compared with 33% of their peers.

Summer Search selects students based on leadership and altruism and offers them weekly mentoring help with academic and life challenges for three years (sophomore-junior-senior). Staff members walk students through the college application and financial aid process until they get where they want to go. Later, thousands of matriculated college students and alumni form a Summer Search network of support in higher education, career planning, and life in the world beyond.

Maybe the best part of the program is the travel: for two summers (preceding junior and senior years) they’ll scatter out to all corners of the nation and the world, to backpack and hike, climb mountains and navigate kayaks, teach orphans and build houses. Today’s program, called “Sophomore Orientation,” takes students through a circuit of workshops in resume writing, professional etiquette, values and visioning, and wilderness trip preparation.

The girls have long hair and wear yoga pants or skinny jeans with flats. The boys, clad in T-shirts and hoodies, bend their lean frames into chairs. When the talk turns to three weeks off-grid, away from family and all civilization, it’s the parents’ turn to get nervous. “Will I be able to reach my daughter?” asks one mom. “What if she gets her period?” asks another. “Will students be able to do laundry?”

The answers: Parents can communicate only through letters that get delivered once a week by the camp supplies-runner. Yes, nearly all the girls will get their period during the three weeks (some unexpectedly) and they will deal with it. And no, there’s really no such thing as bathing or laundry. They’ll all stink together, and it will be fine. In fact, it’ll be worth it. “How you look and dress really doesn’t matter,” says junior Javier, who did his wilderness trek last summer. Because they’ll be carrying all their supplies on their backs, most students will only bring one or two outfits, plus a clean set to wear home at the end—after the single basecamp shower they’ll get before returning to civilization.

“I promise you, you will be nervous, especially on the first day,” says program director Monica Hanza. “But if you come with an open mind, it will be the experience of a lifetime.”

Summer Search students will camp from Oregon to North Carolina, in groups of 10-12 youth from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. One sophomore plans to camp in Wyoming, just 13 miles from the reservation where her mom grew up.

“On my wilderness trip,” recalls junior Cody, “we climbed up so high that I was actually looking down onto clouds over the lake. I got the most beautiful photos.”

“I climbed a peak I never thought I could summit,” says junior Gianna, “and then right after that, there was another. I couldn’t believe it, but we all did it.”

The shot Cody got from atop the Bighorn Mountains, looking down through the clouds to the lake below. 

Cody admits that “You feel initial awkwardness with all these weird people you’re going to be living with for almost a month,” but says they’ll soon feel like family. Gianna remembers that her group got to the point, near the end when food supplies dipped, to fighting over pads of butter. “That was our biggest fight,” she says. “We laughed about it afterward and said, ‘Why were we fighting over butter?’”

Kassandra, a junior from Hayward, has fond memories of nights around the campfire. “That was definitely the highlight for me,” she says. “We would all sit and talk about the experience of the day. We learned we were a lot stronger than what we thought we could be.”

Older Summer Search students, volunteering for the day, offer up advice on how to make the most of the wilderness trip. “Bring one pair of extra socks—they’ll feel like heaven at the end of a day of rock-climbing.” “Run uphill now, while you’re training, to get in good shape.” “Talk more on the trip—don’t be shy—get to know the people in your group before it’s too late.” “Tell your parents to send lots of letters and treats.”

Students conduct a case-study reviewing college applications, to discover what admissions counselors will consider when reading theirs.

New to the program, this year’s sophomores practice calling their mentors, crafting resumes, giving an elevator pitch, and showing confidence in professional settings. They talk about how they navigated the Summer Search selection process, and the similarities between that and the college application process. They learn how admissions counselors select among undergraduate applicants. They practice choosing between two fictitious students, Jesse and Erica, with different racial and economic backgrounds, different GPAs and test scores. It’s a close race, but the Summer Search sophomores end up selecting Jesse, the candidate with a lower GPA but who’s “pushed and challenged himself more” with AP courses and part-time employment. “Now,” nods college and financial aid advisor Berenice Cervantes, “you have an idea of what happens behind closed doors when your college application comes in for review.”

Staff and students share Subway sandwiches for lunch and then pass cookies for dessert. The sophomores are already thinking ahead to where they might apply to college: Alejandra plans on international studies at UC Berkeley, and Daniela hopes to study nursing at Mount St. Mary’s. Alexis wants to attend UCLA and become a doctor.

Program associate Ibrahim Choudry displays eye contact, handshakes, and proper attire for interviewing, whether it’s for college entrance, a scholarship, or a job. Krismin Inocentes, another program associate, winds up the session by asking, “What’s the one more thing that might be the most important of all?” The answer: gratitude. “Would you want to help someone who showed no appreciation?” she asks, then directs the students to compose a thank-you note to someone who helped them today.

The afternoon sun slants through the windows, lighting up photographs on the red-brick wall of students who came before them and conquered mountains and poverty, smiling down on them. The sophomores spend their last hour sketching out their “values tree,” showing where they’ve come from—family, culture, experiences—and where they’re going—goals, challenges, and dreams. They sit cross-legged on the floor, in a circle, mapping out their unique trees; then they talk about the roots and branches.


The tree exercise: students think back to their roots, values, experiences, and ahead to the branches of where their goals and dreams will take them next.

“I grew up in the Philippines, until just two years ago,” says junior Gianna. “I never even met my dad, and I have a hard time trusting people as a result. But my stepdad has been like a real dad to me. My mom has really been my everything—she was definitely the one I’ll missed the most on the wilderness trip.”

“I lived in the ghetto and didn’t even know it,” says Kiya, “till we moved into a neighborhood full of rich kids. My plan is to join the Peace Corps. I want to make a difference, some way somehow.”

Michael moved around a lot as a kid. “I went to three different schools in eighth grade alone,” he recalls. “Our moves were always based on arguments between my parents. While they were dealing with each other, it was up to me to watch over my two younger brothers.” He sees himself as a leader because he is “curious, smart, creative, and open-minded,” he tells the circle. “My dream is to be like my dad. He’s the supervisor for a construction company. I want to find or build that one home where my family can live together in harmony, and where we can put down roots and stay.”

Jamal talks about being the eldest son in his family. “I had to be for my family what my father wasn’t,” he reflects. “That’s taught me what leadership really is. It’s empathy plus courage.” Pitching tents with strangers and journaling through his solo this summer in the wilderness, Jamal will get the chance to test both.

Summer Search sophomores jumping at the chance to get going on their wilderness adventures.

(Photos by Summer Search Silicon Valley volunteer Leslie Burlock and Suzanne Skees)

LEARN more about the students in Silicon Valley and six other U.S. locations, here.

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