Jay Jacobs starts off his interviews with a simple question: What's it like to walk in your shoes?
But when a high-schooler stares down at the wedges strapped to her feet, he remembers that sometimes even simple questions need explaining.
Many of the public school students Mr. Jacobs meets with as director of Boston's Summer Search scholarship program are recent immigrants, still puzzled by English metaphors. Others simply aren't used to an adult listening one-on-one to them.
In an hour, Jacobs can sometimes get to know students better than their teachers do. He uses what he discovers to match the teens up with a summer adventure that will challenge them physically and mentally.
The Summer Search Foundation pays for scores of low-income students to take "experiential education" trips sponsored by independent organizations around the country - whether it's backpacking in Colorado, biking in Europe, or earning credits on a college campus.
Such highly structured rites of passage have proliferated since the Outward Bound model came to the United States from Britain in the 1960s. But without Summer Search grants, few Boston public school students could afford to set off on these odysseys, which expose young people not only to new places, but to new parts of themselves and a wider sense of what's possible in life.
"Every kid has something of value to offer a group when a group is faced with a challenge - like feeding itself, or sheltering itself" says Bill Zimmermann, accreditation coordinator for the Association for Experiential Education (AEE). "It can be a profound educational experience ... and this helps to motivate them to do better elsewhere."
The cash value of the grants is substantial, but ask alumni what they treasure most, and they talk about things without price tags: confidence, spiritual inspiration, deep friendships. "Summer Search is a very intensive investment in each kid," says program associate Emily Forester.
Kids in the middle
With the help of teachers and guidance counselors, the nonprofit finds kids in the "quiet middle," Ms. Forester says, the ones who have leadership potential or some motivation but often don't get noticed because they are neither troublemakers nor stars. "They're the kids getting C's and D's because they work 40 hours a week and do all the chores and speak English for the family," she says.
Summer Search veterans recount their trips with as many superlatives as a hiker uses to describe a summit view.
After 10th grade at East Boston High, James Grant took his first flight - to Outward Bound in Colorado. "It was the hardest thing - to this day - that I've ever done," he says with an accent that reveals how rarely he's out of Boston.
"I had never been mountain climbing before, and I was somewhat afraid of heights.... Also, they monitored what we ate. We couldn't shower - for three weeks! And the animals! I mean, I'm used to seeing animals behind cages in the zoo, not right beside me."
Just the prospect of an exciting opportunity can prompt teens to see more potential when they look in the mirror. Hapstou Diallo, from Burkina Faso in Africa, was so excited about her upcoming trip to Maine that she got up the courage to call her father back at home. In the past, he was the talker and she the listener. "I think he was surprised, and happy too," says the ninth-grader, who would be in 11th grade but for her English.
The level of self-discovery skyrockets during and after the journey. Mr. Grant says he was often preoccupied by fatigue as he climbed. But he glimpsed something important: "I don't always need my mother or someone there to baby me or help me."
He later realized how wise it is for all students to be asked to keep a journal. "When I was going through rough times ... I found that journal and I opened it up, and I was like, wow, I remember when I said in Colorado that I just couldn't go any further.... And somehow I just found a way to get through it. So that book, it symbolizes perseverance."
After his junior year, Grant received a Summer Search sponsorship for a stint at the Virginia Military Institute. (Most students take trips two consecutive summers.) He just finished his first year at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., a more demanding school than he once envisioned himself attending.
Returning from a profound three-to-six-week trip can be "bittersweet," Forester says, because the teens have been temporarily freed from their normal duties. So Summer Search offers something even wealthy student-adventurers rarely get: an extensive support system when they come down off the mountaintop.
The staff help the kids figure out how "to keep some of that good feeling with them ... as school begins again and work begins again," Forester says. Students write reflective essays, and share them during a fall open house with the group's board members, donors, and families.
Arelhy Rios was a shy sophomore when she spent four weeks at the Longacre Leadership Farm in Pennsylvania. "When I came back, I was more loud and talkative, and I expressed myself more at school," she says. Her family kept asking, "What is it with you and this 'I feel...' thing?"
For potential donors who want to see results that are less "touchy-feely," the educational achievements of alumni are persuasive. A few of the original Boston group have just graduated from college, and about 95 percent of the other alumni are on track to do so. Summer Search has also collaborated in recent years with The Bottom Line, a college counseling service.
Scholarships for adventure-education trips are rare, Mr. Zimmermann of the AEE says, and most participants are white and from middle- or upper-class families. But Summer Search's fundraising has enabled it to keep pace with demand: about 145 Boston students - plus 250 from California chapters - are setting off on treks this summer.
A change in perception
Sasha Kovriga has had more than a decade to reflect on his experience. He was among the first 14 students sent on trips in 1990 by Linda Mornell, who founded the nonprofit in San Francisco and is its president.
Sasha and his mother had arrived from Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, just five months before, and things weren't going well for the non-English speaker. A Jewish family-services counselor recommended him for Summer Search, and soon, he was hiking across the desert in Israel.
In his American high school, he says, he felt like "the weirdo who can't do anything," but on the trip he was seen as a capable part of the group, especially because he could speak Hebrew.
Mr. Kovriga says his school performance improved dramatically. Now a Harvard Business School student and a Summer Search board member, he still counts Ms. Mornell as a mentor.
"Kids see themselves in a certain way when they come: 'I'm going to fail,' or, 'There's only so much I can do.' Summer Search changes the way they look at themselves. And the moment they stop looking at themselves this way," he says with a snap of his fingers, "they start being successful."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor