On Wings of Diversity
During one week at BYU’s SOAR camp, multicultural high school students celebrate their heritage and raise their educational vision.
Photography by Claire Marika Buys (BFA ’10)
It’s 7 a.m. on a sunny summer Monday. For 17-year-old Hudson Sheranian, this is a late start; he’s used to getting up early and going to football practice or working on his family’s farm in Mapleton, Utah. This week he’s hitting the books at BYU.
Although he’s glad to be off farm duty, Sheranian’s not quite sure what to expect from Summer of Academic Refinement (SOAR), a college-prep summer camp for multicultural high school students. He’s afraid he won’t connect with his fellow participants—smart kids who don’t speak English, he thinks.
During check-in at Heritage Halls, Sheranian is amazed when a student greets him with “Hey, what’s your name?”—in English. It’s not much longer before his fear abates, and he realizes that he has much in common with the other SOAR participants, all of whom, in fact, speak English.
Sheranian comes from an unusually diverse family. Three of the six children are adopted—his two older brothers and one sister are Caucasian, he is Samoan, one younger sister is Romanian, and the youngest sister is African American and Native American. But outside of his family, Sheranian’s world in Mapleton is a bit lacking in color. “I’m the only Polynesian in my whole school that I know of,” he explains. This week will be his first time meeting a Puerto Rican or a full Native American and his first chance to spend time with a lot of Polynesians.
Sheranian is welcomed to SOAR orientation with a fresh BYU doughnut and a fat ACT prep book—signs of things fun and academic to come. In the next five days, SOAR participants will take ACT prep classes, learn about BYU admissions and academic programs, visit Temple Square, do a service project, hike the Y, and take the ACT. To help them through the week, the students have a group of BYU-student counselors, most of whom were once SOAR participants themselves. Throughout the week, counselors serve as friends, mentors, and examples.
Before the parents leave their teenagers in the counselors’ care, SOAR director Samuel D. Brown (BA ’01) tries to dispel any lingering fears about the week ahead. “I’m willing to bet that even though some of your parents dragged you here kicking and screaming, . . . by the end of the week your parents will drag you away kicking and screaming.”
Climbing Cultural Walls
Alana Benallie, the birthday girl, volunteers—no, is volunteered—to climb the rock wall first. She’s a little scared of heights, but she makes it to the top quickly while her group watches and cheers. “My sisters came to SOAR and loved it and talked about it a lot,” says Benallie, a Native American from Blanding, Utah. “I knew I wanted to come and spend my birthday here.”
Others aren’t as confident about the climbing wall—or SOAR. Two girls linger in the back of the group, hoping they won’t get picked to scale the wall, trepidation they bond over. Both came not knowing anyone in the program.
Around them at this ropes course in west Provo, other SOAR groups take turns sliding on a zip line, walking across a log 30 feet in the air, or doing team-building exercises. Those students waiting for their turn try to break silences and make conversation. “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” But there are also signs that this isn’t an average summer camp: “What ethnicity are you?” “What AP classes have you taken?” “Aren’t you really tan for Chinese?”
Sam Brown and Lisa Muranaka Parkinson (BS ’96), director of Multicultural Student Services, travel from group to group, meeting each participant and developing relationships that will continue with those students who come to BYU.
Brown says forming friendships and a support system are an essential part of the SOAR program: “Everything from setting them up as roommates to the groups we put them in to the activities we do are very much geared toward facilitating those friendships so that they’ll continue to have that support if they come to BYU.”
The program seeks to open doors of opportunity for potential BYU students who may lack important support systems. This group includes first-generation college students, those raised in single-parent homes, students of low socioeconomic status, English-as-a-second-language speakers, and youth who have had to work to help support their families. SOAR helps many of these students realize that college—and even BYU—may be an option for them. It also helps to enrich BYU. “[We’re] trying to bring in . . . people who come from some different backgrounds so that we can enrich the environment here and have different perspectives,” explains Janet S. Scharman, vice president of Student Life.
The SOAR program launched in 1997 with about 90 participants. Now in three sessions each summer, SOAR serves 300 students from across the country (participants must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents). The program accepts students from a variety of socioeconomic, cultural, geographic, and family backgrounds, giving priority to those from backgrounds that have historically lacked opportunity in higher education.
Corina M. DeLeon (’11), a 2006 SOAR participant from Austin, Texas, says the friendships she made at SOAR helped her when she returned to campus as a BYU freshman and confronted a surprising lack of diversity. “SOAR was definitely something that helped me transition better,” DeLeon says.
When SOAR is over, Benallie says the week was better than her sisters’ stories. “It fit me personally,” she says. Her counselor’s evening devotionals helped her group connect so much that they felt like family. “I made a lot of really close friends,” says Benallie, who plans to keep these new friends for years to come.
A Distinct Spirit
For Walter Frank Eng, a participant from Los Altos, Calif., the number of temples the students pass on the Tuesday afternoon drive from Provo to Salt Lake City is unbelievable: six, including the one at their final destination, Temple Square.
After a day full of ACT classes, a counselor panel on college life, and information on BYU admissions, Eng and his friends are excited for something less academic. On their tour, Eng hears about the 40-year construction of the temple and is impressed by the early Saints’ dedication. He is amazed by the Tabernacle’s heavenly acoustics.
Later, as Eng gathers with the other students for a photo in front of the temple, four sister missionaries walk past. The students break out in cheers and applause for the missionaries—something the sisters don’t get every day. Among the SOAR crowd, it’s cool to be a dedicated member of the Church.
Eng, surprisingly enough, is not a member of the Church. “I attend the Mormon Church, but I’m not baptized yet,” he explains. But that doesn’t stop him from feeling the Spirit on Temple Square, where he says the Joseph Smith movie moved him to tears. He has also felt it at BYU. “There’s a sort of sense you can feel when you just walk around,” he says. “When I walked around other campuses, it was different. It’s just something you feel.”
Keoki L. Leong (’13), a 2010 counselor and 2005 SOAR participant, was afraid as a high schooler that BYU was too spiritually focused, that it would be like going to Church every day. “SOAR did change my view of BYU. It’s not just a Church college; it’s a regular university,” he says. “But actually, it is kind of like going to Church every day because you do feel the Spirit here on campus.” Leong says the opportunity to experience BYU campus through SOAR solidified his decision to apply to BYU and make it his top choice.
Eng is having a similar experience. When asked if he wants to come to BYU, he replies like he’s sharing a secret: “Alright, this is number one right now.”
Mountains to Conquer
Haliaka Kama is bringing up the tail end of the snake, a long line of SOAR participants winding up the mountain to the Y. Accustomed to sea-level air, Kama and her buddy, Liana Davis, have struggled through nine switchbacks, over a mile of trail, and up nearly 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
Kama hails from Kihei, Hawaii, and Davis claims New York City’s Harlem as home. Kama is Polynesian; Davis, African American. Some 4,900 miles separate their hometowns, and their cultural heritages are worlds apart. Yet here in Provo they have become friends. Ahead, much of the group has arrived and is sitting at the base of the Y, cheering their own success and encouraging the stragglers through the final stretch.
Between breaths, Kama says she had planned to attend BYU–Hawaii. “But after SOAR,” she says, “I might change my mind and come to Provo.” In addition to recognizing the value of leaving her comfort zone, she says her perceptions of BYU have changed. “Like I knew it was good and all—” a roar of cheering emanates from the Y above her, “but after coming I realize how good it actually is.” Through a variety of SOAR presentations, Kama has learned that many of BYU’s academic programs are among the best in the country.
Other Hawaiians at SOAR make similar comments. For some of them BYU has always been about football, but during lab tours, a fair presenting various majors, and other sessions, they come to appreciate the strength and difficulty of a BYU education.
While most high school students stay far away from academics in the summer, most SOAR participants are grateful for the hours of ACT and other classes each day this week. “I was scared about the whole transition between high school and college,” says Shelby Tulley, a Native American from St. Michaels, Ariz. But SOAR has helped him prepare for college academics. “I need to work hard this year so it won’t be such a shock when I actually do get here.”
The challenges of university academics are in the future, however; at the moment, Kama and Davis face the challenge of the mountain. The pair crosses the final 10 yards of trail, and from the white, concrete-encrusted Y, the cheering of the crowd is now for them.
At the Y, the group meets a special guest, Adam P. Ruri (BS ’10), a former BYUSA president and a Polynesian from Wellington, New Zealand.
“How was your guys’ hike?” Ruri asks. A chorus of cheers gives the response, and he continues. “I’m going to ask you a question that takes a whole lot of courage: How many of you had a hard time?”
Using the difficulty of the hike as a springboard, Ruri tells the SOAR group about Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander who was one of the first two people to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Reflecting on his 1953 achievement later in life, Hillary would say, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
Ruri encourages the SOAR group to follow Hillary’s example, to remember that they can conquer their mountains—actual mountains, academic mountains, or other challenges—as they conquer themselves. Such a feat does not necessarily require great ability, but it does require the will to succeed, coupled with determination, he says. “That’s what you’re going to need—determination.”
Philip Conte, from Glendale, Ariz., performs an energetic dance, jumping, stomping, and twirling with a huge smile on his face and a vibrant green lavalava around his waist. A mix of Filipino, Italian, Armenian, and Native American, Conte explains, “All of my cultures use dance to express joy.”
At the beginning of the week, BYU’s dean of students, Vernon L. Heperi (BA ’91), told the students, “If you don’t know yet who you are culturally, enjoy this week and go home and ask Mom or Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Auntie, Uncle, to teach you.” Now four days into SOAR, many want to go home and learn more, while all, like Conte, are excited to share what they do know. At the Culture Share, SOAR participants have the opportunity to share something about their culture—a song, an instrument, an article of clothing, a story.
Aaron Escajeda, from El Paso, Texas, holds a colorful piñata and explains symbolism that has been lost in children’s birthday parties. The blindfolded person represents faith, spinning to disorient the hitter symbolizes Satan, the candy falling for all to share—charity. It’s clear that this isn’t just something Escajeda memorized because he had to say something about his Mexican heritage at the Culture Share—for him, it’s personal.
Wearing bright blue traditional Navajo clothing, James Ahuna, a native Hawaiian, explains how important aloha is in Hawaii—appreciating and sharing cultures in a spirit of love. “I will share with you my culture of aloha through sharing my Navajo Indian friends’ hoop dance,” he says. Ahuna dances through the hoops to a Navajo song, the bells on his boots singing along to the music with each step. He interlocks the hoops to form shapes of the world and an eagle’s wings, sharing his friends’ culture as if it were his own.
The Whole Package
By Friday afternoon, the ACT test is over and the countdown to goodbye looms for participants as they enjoy the rest of the day, which will culminate with a closing banquet with their parents and a dance.
At a wrap-up activity, the students share “SOAR-imonies.” “I’ve never felt so happy,” says Eliza Logan, from Laie, Hawaii. “I’ve never had this whole package, where you get to learn about the ACT, you get to do service, you get to go to the temple and feel the Spirit, and you get to share cultures.” For Logan, the chance to come to SOAR and experience BYU was crucial. “I’ve never had the Spirit yell at me before, but I think as I’ve gone throughout this week something’s been telling me I belong here.”
Andy Lopez, a Latino from Cedar Hills, Utah, is one of the last to share. “I wasn’t looking forward to coming to SOAR,” he admits. “I’m used to hanging around white people at school all the time.” Lopez explains how at times he has felt that he was like everyone else at his school. “When I got home and looked in the mirror, I would be disappointed that I was once again brown. I wasn’t really proud of where I came from, my heritage.”
But Lopez, like many of his new friends, will not leave SOAR the same person as he was when he arrived. “This week has changed me,” he says. “I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of my culture. I hope to make a difference and share that with other people.”
Hanale Vincent (BS ’04) is a 6-foot-5, 321-pound lineman with Polynesian heritage, not uncommon on the BYU football team. Recruited by various college teams, including BYU, he says that SOAR helped him make it to Provo. “I took the ACT before I went to SOAR, but it was just a requirement for graduation, and I was blindly walking in and taking a test unprepared,” he says. “Getting the skills to refine my ability to take the ACT and be successful with that helped me out.”
Vincent came to BYU on a football scholarship and played throughout his college career, but the people he met at SOAR provided a support system beyond football. Thirteen years later, he still stays in touch with SOAR participants from summer 1997. “It was a real intimate setting, so we got close, all of us, while we were there,” he says.
Vincent lives with his wife and two children in Hawaii, where he grew up. In 2009 he graduated with a master’s in social work from the University of Hawaii, and he now works at the Kamehameha Schools where he coaches football and serves as a career specialist. He now does for others what SOAR did for him. “Most of our department,” he says, “is geared toward helping those students progress and graduate from college.”
A Positive Choice
According to Elizabeth E. P. Stubbs (BA ’08), the only thing better than attending SOAR as a participant is working at SOAR as a counselor.
“I tell people this all the time—SOAR changed my life.” Stubbs, a 2003 SOAR participant, says at SOAR it sunk in for the first time that she could choose to be happy. “[After SOAR], I was one of the most positive people,” she says.
Stubbs, a Latina with Peruvian heritage, wanted to share that experience with others. “I didn’t know what I wanted to study in college, I didn’t know where I wanted to live, but I knew I wanted to be a SOAR counselor.”
She got her chance in 2006, and the experience was all that she had hoped for and more. She remembers telling a coworker after her summer as a counselor was over, “I don’t know how to go back to living my life. I don’t know how to go back to caring only about what I do.”
She still reminisces about the experience: “It’s my favorite job I’ve ever had.”
The passion Stubbs has for SOAR seems to run in her blood. “It’s not SOAR if there’s not a Stubbs here,” jokes Lisa Muranaka Parkinson (BS ’96), director of Multicultural Student Services. All five children in the Stubbs family have participated in SOAR. In 1997, SOAR’s first year, Ruth (BS ’99), the oldest, was a counselor, and the next oldest, Andrew (BS ’06), was a participant. David (BS ’06) and Elizabeth also made their mark on the program, first as participants and then as counselors. The youngest, James (’13), was a counselor in 2010, marking the end of the Stubbs family streak.
Although there are no more Stubbses to go to SOAR, the program will stay with the siblings. “It feels like a part of our family,” says Elizabeth Stubbs. “I’m very proud to be a part of a legacy.”
An Unwitting Example
Even though Bianca Hartgraves (’11) attended Provo High School, a block away from BYU campus, her feet didn’t touch BYU soil until she came to SOAR. A native of Oaxaca, Mexico, Hartgraves was adopted by an American family at age 14 and joined the Church during her junior year of high school.
“I didn’t think that I would make it to college,” says Hartgraves. The sentiment she felt from her classmates and society in general was to be satisfied with a high school degree and just get a job. But the message she felt at SOAR was different. “You can be whatever you want to be. . . . You are bright, and you are a decent adult.” Hartgraves explains, “[SOAR] really helped me to open my mind and to realize that there are more opportunities for me.” Hartgraves hadn’t previously planned to take the ACT, but she took it at SOAR. After the program was over, she applied to three universities and was accepted to all three.
From her experiences at SOAR, Hartgraves knew that BYU was the school for her. At SOAR, “everyone was so welcoming—because of your color, because of your language, because of whatever you had that is different, [that] made you unique.” She feels that same welcoming spirit at BYU as a college student: “BYU offers you an opportunity to succeed and wants you to be here and wants you to share your background, to share who you are.”
Hartgraves is the first in her family to attend college. She will graduate in exercise and wellness, and she hopes to go on to an occupational-therapy doctorate program. “The people around me look at me as an example now,” says Hartgraves. “They really feel like if I did it, they can do it too, and that’s the most amazing thing—when somebody believes that they can do it because you did it.”
Out of Africa
Born in Mozambique, Luis and Amelia Belchior lost their parents to AIDS while they were children. They struggled to survive on their own until they were put in an orphanage, but conditions weren’t much better there. Their older brother, Rogerio, cared for them until he, too, fell victim to AIDS. Before he died, Rogerio met an American couple and asked them to adopt his younger siblings. Sharon Ruff Slater (BA ’85) and Gregory S. Slater (BS ’86) struggled for seven years to adopt the children before finally succeeding in December 2009. Now Luis, 19, and Amelia, 17, live in Gilbert, Ariz., with their adopted parents and will graduate from high school this year.
Amelia heard about SOAR while attending the Especially for Youth program at BYU. The ACT prep was a major draw for both the siblings, and Amelia looked forward to spending time with so many members of the Church, something she hadn’t experienced in Mozambique and was experiencing for the first time in Arizona. “I choose friends that have standards the same as me,” she says. “It’s just so amazing to come here and . . . to find people with the same background as me, who share the same values as me.”
The siblings weren’t always so sure they would make it to this point. Of growing up in Mozambique without parents, Luis says, “I knew that I wanted to go to college; that was my desire. But the problem was I didn’t know how to get to college.” But in his current situation, Luis says, “I’ll do anything so I can go to college.”
The Belchiors are certain they’re applying to BYU, but if they don’t get in at first they plan to attend LDS Business College and then transfer to BYU. Luis is postponing his part of the plan so that he can first serve a mission.
They both worry about how they’ll do in college, but they say SOAR helped calm their nerves. “I’m not sure if my English is going to be good enough to go to college and if I’m going to be that good as a student,” says Amelia. “Then when I think about all the workshops we have had, I think it’s OK. I think I can do it.”