[Video co-produced with Matthew Williams.]
Juan Hernandez has had a life-changing summer. The 14-year-old math and science whiz got to geek out with like-minded kids for five weeks on the lush Stanford campus, learning about everything from computer programming to the infection rate of HIV.
Juan was among the 80 low-income, high-achieving students of color who are psyched about STEM and were chosen to participate in the SMASH program. SMASH stands for Summer Math and Science Honors Academy, and it’s part of the Level Playing Field Institute, a San Francisco-based nonprofit founded 10 years ago by Freada Kapor Klein. The enrichment program is held on the campuses of U.C. Berkeley and Stanford, where SMASH scholars, as they’re called, come back every summer during their high school years for an immersive college experience. And during the school year, they get SAT prep support, college counseling and financial aid workshops to make sure they stay on course.
If Juan and his peers are already high-achieving, ambitious students, one might wonder why they need an extra boost with this kind of program. They’re not exactly at-risk kids. Juan has a 4.0 GPA, takes A.P. classes, and has set lofty goals for himself. He wants to be a surgeon or a physicist.
But as driven as Juan is, his future is far from guaranteed. He must be admitted to a good college (his top choices are Stanford and Berkeley). He must secure financial aid or scholarships. And those are just the initial steps. Once he’s in, the level of rigor in math and science classes at top-tier universities can destabilize even the most determined superstar.
At LPS, the college prep charter high school he attends in Richmond, California, Juan does take A.P. classes in whatever classes are offered — but math and science are not. So the lack of exposure to college-level academics could be an obstacle. Add to that the fact that for students of color, only 10% of those interested pursue a STEM career after their first two years of college. And for low-income, first-generation students of color, that number is significantly lower, according to Jarvis Sulcer, director of education programs at the Level Playing Institute. (Read more about the numbers behind the lack of students of color in STEM fields.)
And that’s the point of programs like SMASH – to make sure that bright kids like Juan are exposed to the realities of the challenges that come up when they go from big fish to little fish. Things like living away from home, being able to find like-minded people who come from the same kind of background and who are as ambitious and motivated as they are. And that’s exactly what this experience has done for Juan.
Juan’s future seems bright. He’s naturally smart, he’s ambitious, and he’s got the support of a formidable program with big funders backing him up. Eight years from now, we’d like to follow up and find Juan happily toiling away in a science lab or at a hospital. Stay tuned.
Read more in the My Education series, focusing on how intervention programs influence the lives of low-income students.
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