Explaining a Life-Changing Experience


As a recent college graduate, I’ve had some time to reflect on the experiences that have been vital to my academic journey and Rainier Scholars seems to be the one that stands out the most.

Whenever I hear the question, “So what is Rainier Scholars?”, so many amazing things come to mind. A great education. Leadership training. Community.

And also as a Rainier Scholar, I frequently find myself in situations where I have to debunk myths about the program and to this day, it’s still difficult.

With Rainier Scholars being a program that has so many facets and layers, it’s very easy for misconceptions to form. One of the more common ones I hear, surprisingly, is that Rainier Scholars is like “summer school” or “a summer program”. While the summer courses during the Academic Enrichment Phase (AEP) are a vital part of the program, it’s only the beginning of an 11-year journey that provides scholars with countless opportunities.

Another misunderstanding is that Rainier Scholars is “only for private school kids”. This is one that shocks me every time I hear it, as it couldn’t be any more wrong. While explaining the recruitment process, I clarify that Rainier Scholars reaches out to students from multiple school districts in the Seattle area and encourages them to apply. After joining the program, our students continue to excel in school with many either transferring to private schools or taking honors and advanced placement courses in public schools.

Rainier Scholars has had a remarkable impact on my life and has taught me the value of hard work. I remember the conversations I would have with my peers during the AEP phase, particularly during the first summer, about how bad I wanted to quit the program. I was 10 years old and I struggled to see the point of doing so much work when I’d rather be outside enjoying my summer like any other kid my age.

RS sciencePlaying basketball and video games were replaced by reading literature and studying chemistry and it was frustrating for me at the time. Whenever thoughts of quitting entered my mind, I would remember the importance of perseverance, a core value in Rainier Scholars. The ability to persevere was one that I thank Rainier Scholars for, as it prepared me for the future and ultimately, allowed me to earn my degree from the University of Washington.

So after years of explaining the program, how do I describe Rainier Scholars? As a student who has completed the 11-year program, I can easily say that Rainier Scholars turns potential into results by promoting excellence. Rainier Scholars assists low-income students of color on their journey to success by providing scholars with life-changing opportunities.

Viche’ Thomas, a fellow Rainier Scholar alum says, “Rainier Scholars expanded the opportunities I had access to by providing me with a strong education as well as equipping me with the needed skills it would take to be successful throughout my academic journey.”

In the future, I hope Rainier Scholars continues to grow and change the lives of many young students in the same way it did for me. They have played a major role in my success and I know Rainier Scholars will continue to have a positive community impact for years to come.

RS - 5 sweatshirts

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Teaming Up with Tutors

“When students make a change to their study habits or access new resources that make a difference—that makes my day. I love it when they move from ‘I’ll try to I AM doing it!”

Jackie Billups leads the Rainier Scholars Homework Center and Tutoring Service and is also an AmeriCorp Volunteer. Throughout the year, Rainier Scholars offers a free, drop-in tutoring center and 1:1 support for all our students. In numerous cases, it has been a game-changer for scholars.
Jackie Billups
Many of the students coming in for tutoring help have improved their grades—often by a whole letter grade. “After establishing a strong student/tutor relationship with one sixth grader, I was able to help identify that her biggest challenges were rushing and computational errors. We developed a plan to organize her student time in a way that allows her to identify when she has made an error. Now she is earning a comprehensive grade of B-.”

In a recent student survey, where students were asked, ‘What helps relieve your stress around school?’ a frequent answer was the Homework Center and Miss Jackie.

“A lot of times students don’t ask for help or utilize resources because they feel ashamed of not already having their subject perfected. We encourage them to stop by, ask for help and reinforce the idea thgroup shotat learning is an ongoing process.”

“I support our scholars in their desire to succeed and change the game for themselves and their families through a higher education. It means something to me when a scholar succeeds. I’m proud that the attendance at the center doubled in the last year.”

Why does sixth grAshleyader Ashley Silva stop in?

“You can make sure your homework is done right. And you can also get extra help.”

After nearly a full school year tutoring scholars, Jackie has found her calling as a professional.

“I have worked with sometimes stressed and frustrated students. But when those students text me and say, “Miss Jackie—thank you for helping me–I’m passing math now, OR I wanted to give up, but I didn’t because you helped me and you should be a teacher”—I know service is my place.”

Want to volunteer?
The Homework Center and tutoring service at Rainier Scholars is a 100% volunteer run program. We’d welcome your interest!

Posted in College Graduation, College Support (CS), High School Graduation, Leadership Development, Mentorship, Organizational Mission, Staff View, Uncategorized, Volunteers | Leave a comment

Bringing it Full Circle – A New Generation of Leaders

As one of the newest members of the Development team, I recently attended my first Rainier Scholars event. I was inspired to witness our college graduates share their insights and act as strong champions for a new wave of young professionals.
 Panel and moderator
For those who want to understand what the future holds, our annual Education Happy Hour provided a crystal ball perspective. “Recruiting and Engaging Millennials in the Workplace” was an eye-opening experience on many levels.
 By the year 2020, millennials will represent a full 40% of the total working population. Best of all, millennials have a strong desire to invest in a workplace where they can make a difference and value transformative professional opportunities.

Nearly 80 guests representing 48 companies, including some of the region’s largest like Amazon, Whitepages, Boeing, Skanska, and PATH were present. David Niu, executive director of TINYpulse, provided an insightful presentation and moderated a fascinating discussion about millennials – what they offer to employers and what they care about in the workplace. Panelists also touched on key opportunities and challenges millennials must navigate.

“If I’m given substantial work that allows me to make an impact-that is very important,” shared Myles Jones, a millennial panelist from Cohort III and technical sourcing recruiter at Amazon.
EHH Panel_moderator_sarah_board members 2016Myles reinforced a known fact that 75% of millennials will sacrifice a higher salary for a more fulfilling career. Employees entering the workforce are hungry for roles where they can gain experience and offer value to a company.

The panel discussed many facets about millennials including their desire for transparency, their sense of social responsibility and the fact that the millennial generation will be the most diverse workforce in U.S. history.Marisa F

“What values are at the forefront of a company…” remarked Marisa Fang, a millennial panelist from Cohort I and HR generalist at The Boeing Company.  “That’s what we really look for.”

Angel Franklin, a millennial panelist and talent development director from Skanska echoed, “I look for high integrity within a company.” Another panel member, Yvette Herrara-Greer, HR recruiter from PATH said, “Millennials have always had access to a lot of information so the perception of transparency is important to them.”

As the evening drew to a close, and I watched the networking among employers, recruiters and college graduates in the room I noted an additional element. Life at Rainier Scholars seems to go full circle. With two of the panelists, Marisa Fang and Myles Jones representing employers aEHH_Susie A and guestss well as the Rainier Scholars program, their presence demonstrated the ultimate goal for which we hope. Once young 6th graders aspiring to go to college, they are now college graduates and young HR professionals guiding us and leading the way. They are passionate about supporting the drive and leveraging the talents of young employees today.

I can’t think of a better example of the vision of Rainier Scholars – truly fostering a new generation of leaders.


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Thai Hien Nguyen: A Life of Fashion and Philanthropy

“I know I have to work really hard for everything. Vietnamese people are survivors. I have that on my side. I’m going to survive no matter what-and I’m going to look fly doing it.”

Empowerment, drive, and natural elegance are three characteristics that comprise the unique being who is Thai Hien Nguyen. As the child of parents who gaineThai Hien Nguyen_Senior Celebration 2009 057d asylum in the U.S. after the Vietnam War, she found herself in a new space culturally, linguistically and economically, where any previous privilege was now void. “My parents are not from here. They weren’t aware of all the opportunities available and even if they had been, they probably wouldn’t have known how to access them. Similarly, Rainier Scholars helped me realize that I could do things that I didn’t know I could do.”

Thai Hien states her reality rather simply, but those things she realized she could do were miles beyond her limited beginnings. After graduating from University Prep, she earned a Gates Millennium Scholarship that paid her college tuition in full. She then received her B.A. in economics from Chapman University in Orange, California and studied abroad at the London College of Fashion, where she continued to develop her interest in and understanding of the luxury apparel business. During her summers, she interned at Boeing, where she developed her analytical capacities and business etiquette while adapting to a work environment with a variety of people and perspectives. These skills proved to be invaluable to her career trajectory and her current work as an allocation analyst at Lucky Brand Headquarters in Los Angeles. One of the things she most enjoys in this role is the sense of agency it provides her as a young woman of color in an exclusionary system. “…it blows my mind that what I decide impacts the company…I have a voice.” 

Contrasting her work in a luxury industry, another layer of Thai Hien’s multifaceted identity is her immense propensity to give. When not in the office, she tutors homeless children on Skid Row, one of the most depressed areas of Los Angeles. Through this work, she models the values instilled in her by Rainier Scholars; that education can lead to a life beyond the barriers and dangers of poverty. She encourages her students by sharing the wisdom of her lived realities: “You have no idea, but this is your key to getting out. The key to getting out of the life you have now and it will open the door to all these other things. You can’t get anywhere without education.” Relating her family’s background to that of the people she serves, Thai Hien elucidates further: “We’re not even immigrants; we’re refugees. Ignorance is not always your fault. You could be from a different country or you could be from Skid Row. You’re in these situations Thai Hien Nguyen_w Jen_Senior Celebration 2009 130because you don’t know anything different because you weren’t given opportunities.”

If you have ever met Thai Hien, you can easily see and understand why she works in fashion, but below her beautiful surface lies an equally beautiful spirit that aligns with her namesake, which in Vietnamese means great kindness. Thai Hien is confident in the prospects of her future: “I have a really clear career path at this point. I want to be a Vice President as soon as possible.” There is no doubt that this dream will be a reality before long.

Thai Hien is a balance of benevolence and business with a unique generosity and compassion that permeates each of her endeavors. She embodies the vision of Rainier Scholars Executive Director, Sarah Smith that the access generated by the program will “…ensure a ‘generational transfer of opportunity’ which ripples with an impact well beyond the individual scholars with whom we work.”

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Nicole Frederick: Engineering a Better World

NicoleIn all facets of life, Nicole Frederick is a burgeoning force for good.

“Every morning, if I wake up and I don’t feel like I’m contributing to the world, or doing something good for people, I feel frustrated. Renewable energy is that good fusion between my interest in technology, engineering, and that social component because I’ve always been interested in doing good for my community. It gives me a sense of purpose and a sense of value.”

Her specific focus on renewable energy as an effort to leave a meaningful impact on the world stems from her early awareness of nature and her love of outdoor activities. However, she has always understood that nature is in jeopardy as a result of the non-ecofriendly industries that fuel the machine of modern society. Her belief that “…we can generate the same amount, if not more, energy long-term by using sources that don’t deplete our natural resources or cause damage…” drives her work as an engineer who strives for a healthier earth. “You see fracking and people lighting their tap water on fire and that’s not good….all of the impact that oil drilling has on first and third world nations that we don’t hear about has an incredible health impact as well… Renewable energy research has an incredible potential to help a lot of people in a lot of ways beyond just clean energy production.” Nicole SNW 2

Prior to graduating from Stanford with a B.S. in Management Science and Engineering, Nicole interned with Seattle Northwest Securities and Skanska, one of Rainier Scholars long-term partners, where she developed her technical skills in business, engineering and project management. “Engineering was something I always wanted to do, but I didn’t have the skillset. The project engineering role at Skanska was a great transition because project engineers need business skills. I was bidding on projects and talking to clients and talking to subcontractors, but I was also learning blueprint reading. The business skills that I gained have proven to be invaluable to my career.”

During her academic career, Nicole found a powerful support network in the Rainier Scholars community that guided her transition between industries and majors in college. When she faced challenges in life or in school, she knew she could rely on her college academic counselor to provide a reassuring and objective perspective on any situation while keeping her motivated. “One thing I like about Rainier Scholars is that I know I’m not doing it alone. I’m in a cohort of a lot of people who are my age and going through the same struggles. Every time I come back to Seattle, I get to catch up with people and see what they’re doing, which does two things: it provides a support network and it keeps me from getting complacent.”

A passion for renewable energy. A strong sense of social responsibility. A deep understanding of community. A perfect mix that makes Nicole Frederick a force, moving us toward a more hopeful and sustainable future.









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Rainier Scholars Eliminated the Impossible

Johnny ValdezWhen I was 11, Rainier Scholars gave me the early understanding that education, determination, and the practice of the program’s core values of perseverance, integrity, and courage are the most effective ways to realize a dream. Being a multi-racial, but perceptually black male in one of America’s whitest cities, and the child of a single-mother presented me with the myriad barriers endemic to those pieces of my identity and placed me in a demographic statistically destined to fail. At that age, I was unsure of my abilities and the normalized realities of my background in context had formed me into a person who was unsure of himself. After completing the 14-month Academic Enrichment Phase, I not only a felt a sense of relief and accomplishment, but I also gained the understanding that I could do anything. At that point, the concept of “the impossible” left my consciousness and I moved forward with a certain empowerment tempered by the rigors of what I still consider to be one of the most difficult endeavors I have engaged to date.

Following that period, Rainier Scholars immediately began to return on its promise that if you work for it, it can be yours. That “it” first manifested in my acceptance to Lakeside School, where I dreamed of studying for years before it was a goal within reach. When I entered this new space, I felt ready for any challenge, as I knew that any project would simply take time, effort and planning to execute. I carried this approach with me throughout my six-year career at Lakeside during which I found what would eventually become my focus in life; art.

I initially imagined myself on a corporate path that would give me security to do art later in life. But, as I found myself in the studio for endless hours each day, wishing that my life could be filled with creative expression, I chose to follow one of the many pieces of advice imparted upon us by Rainier Scholars founder, Bob Hurlbut: “don’t wish for it, work for it.” And so I did. After my graduation from Lakeside, I began my studies at Swarthmore College, graduating with a B.A. in Studio Art and Chinese, then was awarded a Fulbright grant by the U.S. Department of State to continue my work at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, China. This fall, I will begin the final piece of my formal studies with an MFA in ceramics at UCLA, but in the interim, I have the pleasure of serving as Rainier Scholars summer marketing intern, which includes sharing the stories of my fellow alumni and how the program has impacted them.

Alex and Vases

Rainier Scholars, its guiding principles and the developmental experiences and opportunities it provided me continue to allow me live my best life today. I will never forget the value of the program or the people who made it and my success possible.

Posted in 11-year program, Academic Enrichment (AEP), Bob Hurlbut, College Graduation, College Support (CS), Scholar Voices | Leave a comment

Top of the Mountain

We are in the home stretch of bringing this fiscal year to a close and it always seems to be a time of reflection for me as we enjoy the view at the top of the mountain having achieved our fundraising goals for the year. There’s something special about making it to the summit. We don’t stay here long, but this year I want to enjoy a panoramic view. It’s easy to forget the climb and the endless amount of energy expended but the landscape tells the story.

We kicked off our last fiscal year with a record breaking number of summer tours and a new depth and breadth of internship placements for high school and college scholars. At the same time we secured our first family foundation commitment of $500k over five years while Sarah cultivated and welcomed a new 50k donor to our community – and that was just the month of July!

Our journey up the mountain has been filled with adventure from a successful Skanska “Bricks and Books” auction to an informative Education Happy Hour setting the stage for a year of new corporate engagement opportunities. College care packages and our gratitude campaign brought personal touches from scholars to our loyal donors. New and growing partnerships with the Seahawks, Sounders and Mariners have increased our visibility and strengthened our brand as a unique and successful hometown program. College scholarship funders across the region have sought us out, creating connections and unique financial opportunities for our students. Numerous community partnerships and new collaborations have developed this year and several recognition awards have highlighted our work.

Group shot

Then there is base camp – our signature event. I have a deep appreciation for why we call our annual luncheon a signature event. It brings together all that we stand for… a true community celebration of what can be accomplished with vision, commitment and hard work. Doors opened. Horizons expanded.

We set an ambitious goal of raising a million dollars at this event – nearly a third of our annual operating budget. Today our 2015 luncheon total has climbed to new heights. We are planting the flag at $1,382,957. We are at the highest fundraising peak in our history for this annual event. Today I am enjoying the scenery.

I am proud of all we have accomplished together. I am thankful for a community that echoes with support and I am most grateful for a Board, a Resource Council and a staff team that commits to this fundraising challenge year after year. It gives me great comfort to know on July 1st as we stand once again at the bottom of the mountain, surveying the scene, contemplating a new climb, that Sarah, Bethany and I are surrounded by a community of seasoned hikers, with backpacks full of experience, energy, commitment, vision and hope.

But for today – Enjoy the view.


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Our Journey Together: Cohort III and Me

Judy and Raquel. jpgHere’s why Cohort III will always hold a special place in my heart. We started together. I had just graduated college and this was my first year as an academic counselor at Rainier Scholars; they were sophomores in high school. And now they are college graduates. How time flies!

Out of all the cohorts, Cohort III helped me grow the most. To them, I was yet another person to meet with on a monthly basis. I quickly realized to do my job effectively, it was essential to build a relationship with them. What I didn’t initially understand is what a gift this would be to me. Throughout the past six years they have shared so much of their life stories with me. That takes a lot of trust, which is very humbling. This work has taught me that what I value most are the relationships and rapport I’ve built with my students

This is a cohort that is definitely not afraid to go out of their comfort zone. Many of them have moved away from home to attend college, two have taken gap years and several have traveled to countries including Cameroon, France, Spain and South America. When I reflect back on my conversations with Cohort III, the general theme has been to define what success and happiness mean to you, and let that be your guide for how to proceed in life.

December dinner

Over the years, members of the cohort have been separated, attending different high schools and colleges. Despite the distance, the group continues to be strongly connected. During many of our summer events and workshops I see how members of Cohort III take advantage of school breaks to see each other. After one of our mandatory summer workshops, a big group made plans to have dinner later to catch up. As they have gotten older, they have become more invested in the program.  As graduates, they will all pursue separate endeavors, but the experience of being a Rainier Scholar is what will continue to bind them all together.



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Rainier Scholars in the South: A Visit to Remember

The transition to college life can be a significant adjustment for many of our scholars.  The RS college support team pledges to visit every freshman on their college campus during the first year of school. I had the opportunity to visit three of our Cohort VI Scholars in Atlanta and Dallas in early March. Syade Shields at Morehouse College, Adam Iyob at Emory University and Feaven Berhe at Southern Methodist University were all on my travel itinerary. While each of them have had ups and downs adapting to their new environments like most freshmen, I can honestly say that they are thriving and making the most of opportunities presented.

My first visit was with Syade at MorehousSyade Shields Morehouse sign croppede. After our campus tour of the bustling campuses (Morris Brown, Spellman and Clark are all within walking distance,) Syade took me to a hole in the wall soul food restaurant called Busy Bee Café that had the best fried  chicken I’ve had in my life. (You know it’s the truth when Chef Emeril Lagasse’s picture is on the wall along with countless other celebrities.) Syade feels like University Prep more than prepared him for college academics, and has been able to face challenges in his coursework with confidence. He’s quite the social butterfly, no surprise here for those that know Syade. Through personal networking, he landed an internship at a local music promotion company, and has been helping book shows in Atlanta for some big players in the hip-hop world.

Adam Iyob at Emory croppedI then left to visit Adam at Emory. I almost didn’t recognize him as he approached me in his tie and sweater with shades on. He’s really enjoying his courses for the most part, and has been exploring much of what the Emory student body and community has to offer as well as the immediate surroundings of the campus. Adam just started playing Lacrosse and is getting some playing time despite being a freshman. He has a job working in campus technology department and also went through training to become part of a campus emergency response team (for campus wide incidents). Adam was extremely thoughtful, no matter whether reflecting on his own experiences or just deeply analyzing the last movie he saw.

Feaven Berhe SMU sign cropped

Feaven was my last visit, though I barely made it into Dallas. A blizzard almost prevented the plane from landing, and Dallas is by no means ready to deal with snow. Despite this I managed to get to Southern Methodist University through the ice and slush. Feaven is always a pleasure to be around with her sense of humor and general good nature. She is happy at SMU as a whole, and stays very busy through the Physician-Scientist Training Program (PSTP) that she’s been a part of since middle school. She spends a lot of her weekends attending events and hosting younger students on campus that are part of the PSTP program, and also getting to know her other peers. Feaven will be doing medical research this summer in Vancouver, BC, topic yet to be determined.”

Adjusting to a new settings can be challenging, especially when students are faced with doing this thousands of miles away from home. Campus visits are so important in creating tangible support at a stage when students might feel disconnected from Seattle and the RS community. Through my meetings with individual students I reflected on some common themes that emerged – self-exploration through pushing personal boundaries, finding new communities of support, and laying the foundations for pathways beyond college.  I am reminded that ALL of these characteristics embody what it truly means to be a Rainier Scholar.

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The Beautiful Game

George Alvarado-Salinas came late to “the beautiful game”. He didn’t fall in love with soccer until the 8th grade when his parents took him to Mexico. George returned from the trip a changed person, admitting he had become “soccer crazed” insisting on wearing indoor soccer shoes and jerseys everywhere he went. While he developed his skills into being a good field player, his passion for the game came alive when juggling and doing tricks with a soccer ball. Known for being a bit reserved in a crowd, George found satisfaction in this solitary pursuit of excellence.George and Chris WOZA Soccer

While George was perfecting his juggling routines and navigating the journey out of middle school and into high school as a Rainier Scholar, Chris Kaimmer, a Yale University graduate from Ballard High School was following his love of the game to soccer pitches around the world. As a volunteer with Grassroot Soccer, a sports-based non-profit supporting HIV/AIDS initiatives in Africa, Chris saw how soccer connects people and helps save lives. In 2013, inspired by the time he spent with Sheldon Hughes, the director of Mtuba Football Academy in South Africa, and other inspiring sports programs like it, he founded a soccer-focused travel company, Woza Soccer, as a way to share the experience with teens in America.

The word “Woza” translates to “Come” in Zulu. Players use it to plead for the ball from teammates (Woza! WOZA!) or to express excitement or disappointment on the field. It is an ever-present yet unmistakable term that epitomizes the passion Chris wants to instill in players and in this transformative cross-cultural program.

For his part, George was introduced to Woza through the program’s efforts to identify scholarship candidates and a partnership created through Chris’ meeting with Sarah Smith, Executive Director of Rainier Scholars. With a lifelong passion for sports and also a lover of the beautiful game, Ms. Smith saw Woza as yet another opportunity to expand the view of scholars, enriching a students’ perspective of the world and how one can make a difference.

Upon learning of the chance to travel and play soccer, George and his parents jumped at this unique opportunity. The trip did not, however, begin auspiciously.
With a mind-numbing 16-hour flight and thirteen other kids from around the country he didn’t know, George admitted, “It was pretty weird. All I wanted to do was sit by myself and read.” But eventually, soccer began to work its magic. As Chris observed, “It was this amazing transformation from a kid alone in a corner of the airport hiding behind sunglasses and reading philosophy who, after a few days and a few touches on a soccer ball, became a beloved part of the group.” George agrees saying, “Soccer made the difference. You’re together with teammates – sharing the experience.”

Making a difference through soccer. That is Woza. When asked what he remembers most about the trip, George recalls, “Soccer. Playing soccer ALL the time.” Whether it was with the Zulu boys on a home-made soccer field, in a market square in Cape Town while waiting for the ferry to Robben Island, outdoors at Sheldon’s house around a stewing pot of Potjiekos – a local dinner favorite – or leading a clinic for HIV-positive local youth, a soccer ball was always present. It was a new and powerful experience. Host families of modest means welcomed them into their homes, sharing a contagious sense of happiness. Their ability to be grateful for what they had while at the same time having big dreams for the future was eye opening to George.

So it was, some moGeorge watching soccernths later, back in Seattle, when Chris asked him if he wanted to go on another trip, George’s face lit up immediately. It was as if his heart was saying, “woza, woza — Woza!” Yes. Yes, I’m open – pass me the ball!

George is a junior at Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences (SAAS) and a member of Cohort VIII. For more information on Woza Soccer contact Chris Kaimmer via email.

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