They say a book can change the world—and the Rainier Scholars program is living proof. A little over 20 years ago, a Seattle resident named Bob Hurlbut read a book called A Hope in the Unseen. It was a story comparing the college experiences of two different BIPOC students—one who went to college and struggled and one who had gone through a college preparatory program in New York called Prep for Prep and thrived.
Hurlbut was so inspired he started raising funds to create a college prep program for underrepresented students of color in Greater Seattle. Rainier Scholars, a nonprofit, was founded in 2000. Today the organization’s annual budget is $4.2 million and the program has a staff of 35 full-time employees.
The program provides students with a pathway to college graduation and includes career and leadership development components. Because most of the participants are aspiring first-generation college students, staff develop strong partnerships with families, which they believe to be an essential ingredient for student success. Rainier Scholars, now entering its 21st year, is based on a cohort model and has about 60 students enter the program each year.
The 12-year program spans from fifth grade through college graduation and offers participants:
“We’re focused on college readiness, college planning and application support, and then leadership and career development, really focusing on skill-building, exploration, and access…” said Derek Rogers, director of college counseling.
The signature piece of the Rainier Scholars program is the Academic Enrichment Phase (AEP), an intensive 14-month experience in a supportive cohort environment, designed to prepare students for placement on college preparatory pathways in public and private schools. Scholars build and strengthen foundational academic skills, cultural identity, and resiliency over the course of two summer sessions and on Wednesday afternoons and Saturdays during the school year. Overall, scholars complete the equivalent of one additional school year (1,000 hours) of academic enrichment, designed to prepare them to be successful in college prep pathways beginning in middle school.
Nearly 500 students apply to join the program each year in a competitive application process.
“It’s a holistic application process and we’re not just taking the smartest, best testtakers: we’re really looking for this combination of kids who have that hunger to learn and also have a good family support system that can help them with the sacrifice that it takes to do this program,” noted Alison Krupnick, marketing and communications director for the nonprofit. “Particularly that fifth grade year, that Academic Enrichment Phase, which lasts 14 months—they’re basically going to school on top of school. So the idea is that the whole family has its eye on the prize of getting these kids to college and they understand the commitment that takes.”
Other components of the Rainier Scholars program include: placement (access to college preparatory pathways in middle school and high school, workshops and tailored application support, and assisting scholars and families to maximize school choices); academic counseling; college counseling; leadership and career development; and alumni services.
What is unique about academic counseling with Rainier Scholars is that counselors travel to the students for meetings and they involve families in the process. Academic counselors visit scholars at schools and college campuses; provide advocacy with school administrators; and offer social and cultural activities, weekly tutoring, skill-building workshops, and annual retreats—all designed to build increased skills for academic success, college readiness, and college graduation. Families are supported through parent workshops, individual meetings, and regular contact with academic counselors.
College counseling involving students and families is another key component of the program. Scholars receive customized intensive college counseling, ACT/SAT prep activities, and in-depth financial aid and college planning services.
“We’re trying to develop a new generation of leaders. It’s not just about the academic piece—that’s definitely a big component—but we do want our students to become leaders in their communities. Wherever they decide to land…we want them to be engaged leaders in creating change.”
Leadership and career development is also a part of the program. Middle school students participate in workshops that foster skill-building, leadership development, and cultural identity and resiliency. They also take part in field trips focused on career exploration and summer enrichment opportunities. High school students participate in leadership development retreats and workshops focused on important civic and societal issues. High school and college scholars receive summer internship opportunities, personalized career counseling, opportunities for career exploration, and professional mentorship.
And once students graduate from high school and attend college, they still benefit from Rainier Scholars through its alumni services, which include professional development, networking, mentoring, community engagement activities, and leadership opportunities. There are currently nearly 250 alumni.
This past year, COVID-19 presented challenges, but it didn’t stop the Rainier Scholars program.
Staff learned how to develop community, deliver content, and facilitate classroom activities online. “It was a massive shift,” said Rogers.
The program also adapted to reflect the nation’s heightened awareness of racial injustice and the 2020 Black Lives Matters protests.
“The leadership development piece always talks about pressing societal issues and civic issues, and in this case, it refocused a little bit to talk more about racial justice and then the career development program,” Krupnick explained. “We do a career expo every year and this year it was a virtual event and we really drove down on diversity in the workplace and (brought) in some speakers to talk about their own experiences as young professionals of color in a variety of fields.”
Ultimately, Rainier Scholars aims to help students become the best they can be.
“We’re trying to develop a new generation of leaders. It’s not just about the academic piece—that’s definitely a big component—but we do want our students to become leaders in their communities,” explained Rogers. “Wherever they decide to land…we want them to be engaged leaders in creating change.”
Elena Loveland is a freelance writer and the author of Creative Colleges: Finding the Best Programs for Aspiring Actors, Artists, Designers, Dancers, Musicians, Writers, and More.