We educate and empower low-income Arizona high schoolers to enroll in and graduate from college.
Our Core Belief
Every student who is putting in the hard work to excel in the most challenging courses at their school should receive the focused guidance needed to successfully:
- Prepare for and apply to top colleges
- Secure scholarships to make college affordable
- Navigate the transition from high school to college
- Advocate for themselves in college and life
Our Founder's Story
With years of teaching experiential programs “out in the field” I knew one thing: learning in an unfamiliar and challenging environment is a transformative experience. It builds confidence like nothing else. I saw this time and time again while teaching for Sea Education Association, Semester at Sea, Outward Bound, and NOLS, and while conducting ocean field research in Baja, Mexico. Over the years, I couldn’t help but notice a certain homogeneity among my students. The number one commonality was wealth. I started to wonder, “Where was everyone else?”
That’s when I decided to look into education statistics and found the massive, long-standing educational achievement gap between low-income and high-income students. I knew that gap was not reflective of ability alone. An idea struck me: if I could bring similarly transformative education programs to low-income students and through these, enhance self-esteem and confidence, it might make a difference in bolstering their confidence to go to college. With that idea, I went into research mode.
I talked to counselors, teachers, and principals at predominantly low-income high schools. Again and again I heard about students who were working hard in school and earning excellent grades, but who weren’t going on to college or weren’t succeeding there. It was clear they were getting very little focused guidance to steer them towards college. It hit me like a ton of bricks – these were the students I wanted to work with. These were the students who with a little investment and attention could go a very long way! It was clear that they valued their education and had the motivation to work hard. All they needed was someone to challenge and guide them – to help steer them on the path to college. They certainly had the ability and work ethic to succeed.
Thus, STEP was born, and 2005 saw our first expedition of 9 students.
My initial hunch was confirmed: bringing these students into a challenging, unfamiliar outdoor environment and giving them the tools and knowledge to thrive there absolutely built up their confidence. After a few years, I noticed that while some of my students were successfully making the transition to college and persisting there, not enough were. I noticed that the students going to community college were having less success in making progress towards degree completion than the students who were going directly to a 4-year institution. I also noticed that most of my students were only considering the large Arizona state universities or the local community colleges, and not the larger scope of options nationwide (except for Stanford). My “ah-ha” moment happened when I asked one of my seniors where she was applying to college and she replied, “Phoenix College and Smith College”. This surprised me and when I asked her why, she told me that a lot of her peers were considering Phoenix College and that she’d heard good things about Smith College from me. Her college application choices were limited to the two places she’d heard about – from people in her life she trusted. I then looked at her transcript and saw all “As” – great! … but then saw that she had only taken regular classes. No one had ever told this young woman that she needed to challenge herself in honors and AP courses to prepare for college. In that moment, I knew that STEP needed to expand to incorporate a comprehensive College-Prep Program.
Since adding our College-Prep Program in 2011...
98% of our students have entered college directly out of high school and are on track to graduate.
Our program has also grown to include over 150 students per year. I welcome you to check out our Impact and the success our students are having. It is truly remarkable!
I’m a research-oriented person, and continue to develop STEP accordingly. I’m driven by the statistics and what I hear from students, teachers, and college administrators. The next project we are taking on is to build our alumni network to foster lifelong support, professional networking, and mentoring between our alumni, and also between our alumni and current high-school students. STEP continues to grow, and I hope you’ll share that journey with us.