Mentor program brings college option to low-income youths

INTRO TEXT Yan Zheng is the type of student who typically falls through the cracks in the state’s education system. She’s a hard worker and a bright student, but she never thought much about going to college. Growing up in Roxbury, safety was often a greater concern for her. “I would turn on the television and see that gunshots had just been fired a few blocks from my house, and I would wonder if next time it was going to be in front of my house,” says Zheng.

Yet today the 19-year-old Zheng is an education success story. A student at Northeastern University, she credits her success to a San Francisco–based nonprofit organization called Summer Search, which uses professional mentors and character-challenging summer trips to remote areas to encourage low-income youths to graduate high school, go on to college, and volunteer in their own communities.

Summer Search, which has an office in Boston, is one of a handful of small nonprofits nationwide that have helped students from low-income neighborhoods find educational success. In 2007, Summer Search was working with 231 students from Boston public schools. Summer Search officials say program participants have a 100 percent graduation rate from high school, and 96 percent go on to college.

What’s crucial to the program’s success is its professional mentors, who typically work with about 35 students at a time. Program officials say the mentors take a strong oversight role in the life of each student, holding them accountable for all aspects of their lives. The students are required to check in with a mentor at least once a week throughout the entire two years in the program; conversations can range from school work questions to family issues.

To participate in Summer Search, a student doesn’t have to be a straight-A student or class president of their high school. Summer Search officials say they are seeking well-rounded individuals who rate high on the three elements of the organization’s so-called RAP program, which stands for resiliency, altruism, and performance.

“Each student must be able to be resilient or bounce back from challenges in their lives; show altruism, whether it is giving back through babysitting a younger sibling or community service; and have some sort of level of success in performance anywhere — academically, athletically, or as an important impact in their home life. It is not directly associated with just academics,” says Rachel Scott, a program assistant and mentor at Summer Search in Boston.

Scott says one way Summer Search finds candidates for its program is to ask, “What is it like to be in your shoes?”

Antonio Gutierrez of Boston’s South End says it was not an easy question to answer. “I had always been sort of a troublemaker in school, definitely not the best student, but Summer Search really helped me grow stronger as a man and as a leader,” says Guiterrez, who is currently attending Union College in Schenectady, New York.

Summer Search students also take two summer over¬night trips with other students from around the country who are not affiliated with the Summer Search program. These trips are designed to test their ability to operate in unfamiliar settings with people they don’t know.

Christian Tschibelu, who graduated from English High School in Jamaica Plain and is currently a student at the Boston Architectural College, said a Summer Search hiking trip out of Asheville, North Carolina, forced him out of his comfort zone and changed him as a person.

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“My comfort level was my biggest change, and I can now enter new areas or settings and manage to be comfortable within that new space,” he says.

The impact of Summer Search is not only changing the individual lives of participants but also the neighborhoods in which they grew up. Community service is not a requirement of the program, says Debbie Krause, the executive director of Summer Search’s Boston office, but most participants give back in some way to their home communities.

Summer Search receives the bulk of its funds from private donors. Local firms currently supporting Summer Search include the First Marblehead Foundation for Education; Loomis, Sayles & Company; and the Baupost Group, a Boston–based hedge fund. Officials say it costs about $13,000 to run a student through its two-year program.