I’ve been volunteering at Rainier Scholars for close to ten years now – the last eight of which writing stories for their newsletter. I love it. I think it is the best volunteer gig in Seattle. Why? First off, in the complicated and contentious world of education, Rainier Scholars has its act together. It sets lofty goals and achieves them – year after year. Second, for someone who likes to write, it provides a mother lode of stories. Third, everything about the program makes me feel good.
The ultimate goal of Rainier Scholars is nothing less than helping the segment of our population which faces the most barriers to a quality education, (low-income students of color, most of whom do not have a family member who has attended college,) go to, and graduate from, college. Students enter the program the summer before 6th grade and stay directly involved with Rainier Scholars for 11 years. Since 2001 there have been thirteen cohorts of students – a new one joining the program every year. Each cohort has a different personality, a different style as you would expect when you mix up sixty-some odd students from all around the Puget Sound. But what doesn’t change and what I never get tired of writing about, is the pact made between the student and the program, which is, very simply, if you give your best effort, we will get you into college – a good college where you will thrive.
As you can imagine, there are myriad levels of support and expertise that go into making good that commitment – on both sides of the equation. Pick up any back issue of the newsletter and you will get a taste of the efforts put in by student and program alike. The results are life changing. For families that had no expectations of college for their children, these Rainier Scholars are the first to bring home a college degree. Take Denzel for example. He enters the program, and a year later is admitted to University Prep for middle and high school. He graduates from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Or Paloma. She enters the program, and a year later is admitted to The Northwest School for middle school, moves on to Garfield High School. She graduates from Columbia University in NYC. Along the way Rainier Scholars helps them find paid internships during high school and college, and secure financial aid packages which cover the vast majority of their college tuition and room and board. (About $600,000 worth of education for the pair.)
To date, 56 Rainier Scholars have graduated from colleges ranging from Agnes Scott College to Yale University and there are over 500 students in the pipeline planning on doing exactly the same thing. You can run the numbers on the financial aid and come up with some impressive ‘return on investment’ numbers, but for me, it is just as compelling to see these individuals’ stories play out over the years. Each has an ebb and a flow to it. Children growing up in a society where privilege and opportunity exist side by side with financial stress and lowered expectations. Families forced to live on the margins even as the wealth of the area continues to grow.
These are the people I get to meet and stories I get to write when I interview the students, parents, staff and teachers of Rainier Scholars. It is a rich vein, filled with hardship and striving for sure, but also resolve and transformation. I have written scores of these stories and while there are recurring themes, each has its own unique flavor and most provide moments of revelation. Like when a student says he’s “lucky” to have the unrelenting pressure of the nightly homework because other kids don’t have the same opportunity, or when a single mother knows because of Rainier Scholars if anything happens to her, her daughter will be OK, or when a teacher becomes like a jazz musician in the classroom, riffing off his students’ energy. How the world is revealed to these young men and women is endlessly fascinating and satisfying, particularly in a time where educational systems all too often, despite their best intentions, remain challenged in helping those most in need.
Rainier Scholars has always affected me on a visceral level. I feel good every time I come in contact with someone associated with it. It can be Diana’s smile when I walk through the office door, or with Sumiko discussing the differences between Cohort X and Cohort XI, or David graphing an “expectation gap” between affluent and low-income families. It is Kiana writing from the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy, (where I grew up), or Quincy telling me of his dream to be a doctor, or a mother who has given everything towards her daughter’s education. It’s Jimena and Syade, Mohamed and Jakirra, Olachi and Raphael – students who are the future of this country; it’s Ronnie, Susie, Sarah, Bob and so many more mentors and advocates. Individuals and stories of such goodness that I cannot help but be filled with hope and anticipation of the next story to be written.