Pick of the Week

Stepping Up

The setting is Prince William Sound, Alaska. A young woman is alone in a kayak, navigating her way through calm water. Suddenly, the winds pick up, and the water gets choppy. A turn lies ahead. She begins to struggle. Her hat flies off in the gusty winds.

The woman has only learned how to kayak days before. Several people are in kayaks behind her, waiting for her to make the turn. They yell out to keep going. The woman doesn't give up. She successfully navigates the bend and makes it to a stopping point. In triumph, she turns to look at the faces behind her. It's a moment she will never forget.

The young woman is Jem Valdillez. A senior at Pueblo High School, Valdillez was one of 12 Arizona students who attended a three-week outdoor leadership expedition last summer. The group kayaked 130 nautical miles from Whittier to Valdez, Alaska. The trip was sponsored by the Student Expedition Program (STEP), a local nonprofit that provides leadership training for low-income, college-bound high school students, and by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).

STEP was founded in 2002 by Tracy Baynes, a former instructor with Outward Bound. After working primarily with wealthy kids, Baynes began doing research on education statistics. She found that "nearly half of all low-income high school students never go to college, a rate five times that of high-income students."

Baynes wanted to provide experiential education to low-income students who had a desire to go to college. She headed up the first expedition to Alaska in 2005 with 10 students.

"The goal of STEP is to provide experiences that allow (low-income students) to understand their abilities and to provide them with confidence and life skills to meet challenges in college," says Baynes. "It seems like a fun and exciting program, but it's so much deeper than that. It's putting them in a foreign situation, and (they are) put in leadership roles.

"Every day, they put together a passage plan. They look at charts, figure out mileage, where there are hazards and when to take breaks. ... They have to get up early and get their gear packed. If they are in a cook group, they get up even earlier. ... Halfway through (the expedition), three students are given the role of leader of the day. They figure out the passage plan, brief the group and lead the expedition on the water. Most students get two chances to be the leader. ... By the time they leave, they have thrived and found out what they are capable of doing."

Baynes says students were identified through two youth-at-risk organizations, Youth on Their Own and Boys and Girls Clubs of Tucson. The expedition costs $3,000 per student and is paid for with funds donated by NOLS, individuals, foundations and corporate sponsors. STEP targets students who have shown academic promise and a strong desire to go to college.

Valdillez plans to study education and media arts at the UA next year. Her goal is to become a media communications teacher. Besides tackling the rough waters of Prince William Sound, Valdillez had to face her first airplane flight.

"It was scary, but I felt comforted, because I had people there to support me through it," she recalls. "It was the perfect opportunity to leave someplace ... and be with people I didn't know."

Valdillez says she learned how to improvise and compromise on the trip. "The first thing I think of is tolerance ... for things you've never known and people you've never known. You learn to do what is best for the situation. ... I'm a lot more confident about going to college. I know I can handle the challenges of a lot of assignments and dealing with a stranger as a roommate. Now, intellectually challenging things don't seem so challenging."

Valdillez had only seen snow once, on a childhood trip to Mount Lemmon. She was astonished by her physical surroundings in Alaska. "I was amazed at how much snow and how green it was. I've never seen such beautiful nature."

Tanya Lozano, a junior at Rincon High School, shares that sentiment. Lozano heard about STEP through her job at the Boys and Girls Clubs. She grew up in the Southwest and thought the expedition sounded amazing.

"I had never been camping in my life. I thought I might as well go all the way. ... I've never appreciated nature so much. I can't believe something can be so beautiful."

Lozano plans to attend the UA and wants to study psychiatry. She says STEP was a really great experience. "It is challenging, but you learn a lot about yourself. I walked away with a lot of pride. I never pictured myself in that situation. It was the hardest thing I had to do in my life and something I would do again."

Local teens share stories and photos of an Alaskan wilderness expedition, sponsored by the Student Expedition Program, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 25, at Summit Hut, 205 E. Wetmore Road. Free. A raffle for a variety of outdoor gear will raise funds for STEP. Call 825-5650 to purchase raffle tickets. Visit stepexpedition.org for more information.

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