By Carmen Ross,
Program Manager of Impact Systems and Programs
As I watched the first few young men arrive at Sacramento State for our third annual Capital Area Promise (CAP) Scholars Summer Institute, a two-day college-readiness program for local students that is part of our initiative to Prepare Students to Succeed in the New Economy, I was filled with anticipation. Soon enough, dozens and dozens of students (literal busloads!) arrived, accompanied by their dedicated Improve Your Tomorrow or Sacramento Cal-SOAP mentors and supporters. They were all ready to get started, and so was I.
Each year, one of our fundamental aims for the Summer Institute is to ensure the students who attend—all of whom are young men of color, a group that traditionally faces the greatest barrier to college success—leave with better knowledge of their individual strengths. So, at the registration table at this year’s Institute, we handed each student a badge marked with his name and his five greatest strengths, as identified by a CliftonStrengths StrengthsFinder assessment that they each completed beforehand.
Youth Development Network, one of our partners for the Summer Institute, worked diligently to make certain that every participant—including the Institute’s staff and volunteers—understood and respected his personal strengths. Together, we all emphasized the importance of embracing strengths throughout all of the Summer Institute’s workshops and activities, making it possible for every student to leave the event feeling empowered by his strengths.
And, thanks to the countless hours of preparation and the generous resources that all of our partners and workshop facilitators put into making the Summer Institute a success, the students left the two-day program feeling empowered in more ways than one!
One Summer Institute exercise prompted the students to build 3D models out of Legos to tell their life stories. During the activity, I asked one young man, Donald, to share his model with me. He said:
“I made a pathway to represent my strengths of being deliberative, and being consistent. It represents my consistency to keep going throughout everything, and make it to the top. I built in stepping stones to represent the temptations out there having to do with the drugs and violence in my community that can deter me from my ultimate goal of making sure my family is straight and that I am okay. But I never let that get to me, and I continue my path to the top.”
“This session, it helped me really realize who I am, because it helped me actually think about everything that goes on in my life,” Donald continued. “This helped me to find out who I was and talk about it, and not just keep it to myself.”
So many of these students have encountered difficult challenges in their young lives. I was struck by their resilience and determination to succeed in the midst of unimaginable circumstances, including the loss of their loved ones.
During an essay-writing exercise led by Katie McCleary, Founder of 916 Ink and Principal of Paper Wings Creative, one student shared that he had lost both of his parents at a young age, and had struggled with depression and anger. At one point, his GPA dropped to a 1.0 in school. When he described receiving academic and emotional help from one of our major nonprofit partners, Improve Your Tomorrow, and how it inspired him to eventually raise his GPA to a 2.8 and begin pursuing his dream of becoming a film director, everyone in the room was silent. All I could think was, “This is exactly why programs like Capital Area Promise Scholars are so necessary. All young people deserve our advocacy, and I am so proud to be a part of the effort to champion these students.”
From walking through the californiacolleges.edu website, to engaging in some of the activities available at The Well recreational center at Sacramento State, there was never a dull moment during the Summer Institute. The Scholars had plenty of opportunities to get to know each other as they were discovering their individual strengths and dreams. The connections they developed made it possible for them to reflect on their plans for their futures honestly—and with great heart. We were all left teary-eyed as we listened to each student’s response during a closing activity that encouraged everyone to consider what he had gained at the Institute. One student wrote, “I leave here knowing I’m not alone and that people are willing to help me in a world where I thought I was alone.”
That’s a powerful lesson. Together, through programs like our Capital Area Promise Scholars, we can continue to empower young people in the Sacramento region toward the same conclusion.