Coming full circle

After 12 years, grads of Summer Academic Challenge are returning now as mentors for the next generation

There’s a saying that you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. That’s not entirely true, according to Kim Bobby, chief diversity officer and director of access programs at the university. “Once we get ahold of you in access programs, we never let you go,” she teases. “You’re in access forever. You’re part of the family.”

Fifty-eight students joined—or re-joined—that family this summer, participating in Summer Academic Challenge (SAC), a four-week math and science program for students in grades seven through 12. Divided into three groups by grade, students tackled subjects like sustainability, rockets and airplanes, and the life cycle of salmon. They researched topics such as habitat restoration in local creeks and how to build a Boeing 747.

Edwin Park, an eighth grader at Meeker Middle School, took particular interest in the salmon, writing in his final paper, “I really enjoyed dissecting the salmon because of all the blood and guts.”

A future doctor? Possibly. Since Summer Academic Challenge began, the program has been giving local kids from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education a glimpse of life on campus in the hope of inspiring them and increasing the pool of college-ready students in Tacoma. Now, 12 years later, many of those same kids are college graduates or in the midst of pursing degrees.

“Maybe 85 percent go on to two- or four-year colleges,” estimates Bobby, “and every year we have a couple of students from access programs in the freshman class at Puget Sound.”

Take brother and sister Matthew and Jamilia Sherls. They’re both five-year veterans of Summer Academic Challenge. A UPS senior this year, Matt has been a teaching assistant in the program for the past three summers, and he plans to enter the School of Education’s M.A.T. program after completing his English degree. Jamilia ’05 was a SAC teaching assistant for two years. She recently received her master’s degree from Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia, where she was awarded the school’s community service award and the 2007 dean’s award, recognizing her academic achievements and commitment to serving the community.

Eric Mercer ’10, a program alumnus and teaching assistant, welcomed his younger brother to SAC this summer. Fellow teaching assistant Eleanor Ross ’10, though not an alumna of the program herself, had two younger brothers participate.

Even without the benefit of family ties on campus, students feel the at-home atmosphere. One started playing basketball with a couple of the teaching assistants every day after the program. “This young man was very quiet and looked like he wasn’t connecting,” says Bobby. “Then I saw him playing basketball with these college students, and you could see the change. He’d wait in the hallway of Jones for our staff meetings to end, and after a few games, they’d take him home. We’ll stay with him, and who knows? Maybe he’ll end up being a student here.”

Summer Academic Challenge is as much about creating a positive learning experience and dispelling fears and rumors about higher education as it is about measurements and equations. “We want the students to see how what they’re learning is something they can use in real life,” says Bobby. “It inspires them, so they have a different internal dialogue about college, about math and science. It really opens up their thinking, opens up their world.”

To participate in Summer Academic Challenge, students must complete an application to the university’s access programs, as well as a second application specific to the summer program. They also are required to write an essay explaining why they want to be in the program and what they hope to gain from it. Their parents also must write an essay outlining their commitment to making sure their children are present every day of the month-long program.

There is no cost to participate in Summer Academic Challenge. The program was funded in 2007 by College Spark (formerly Education Assistance Foundation), Key Foundation, KeyBank, The Boeing Company, Intel, The Baker Foundation, and The Dimmer Family Foundation. Historically the program also has received funding from Rainier Pacific Bank, Russell Investments, and Korum for Kids.

For more on Summer Academic Challenge and other access programs, visit — Sarah Stall