Full SAIL Ahead


Each summer, more than 200 high school students from low income families spend time on the University of Oregon campus, solving crimes, working in underground science labs, and developing mindreading skills.

This isn’t the plot of a new crime-of-the-week show on television, where plucky teenagers bring down grizzled criminal masterminds. Nor is it the outline for the latest Young Adult fiction series, set in a post-apocalyptic near-future where emerging heroes and heroines are learning how to deploy their telepathic superpowers.

No, it’s something even better—it’s the Summer Academy to Inspire Learning (SAIL), where Oregonians in the national Free and Reduced Lunch program are given the opportunity to transform their lives by attending a free camp on the UO campus, getting a taste of what college life at the UO is like.

Each SAIL camp lasts one week, with students attending classes covering such topics as cognitive neuroscience, social psychology, conflicts in the Middle East, Native American culture, taxes, entrepreneurship, the Holocaust, and more. Some of the camps have themed days: for example, the chemistry camp has one day devoted to crime solving and another devoted to studying (and making) alternative energy sources. Over the course of the week, students learn about the world around them, learn about life at one of the top universities in the country, and learn about themselves.

“At school I’m always hiding behind someone, seeing what they do first, because I’m not outgoing,” said Evan, who attended SAIL multiple times while a student at Willamette High School. “Here, I’m like, ‘Whatever, I’ll just let it all out.’”

As a sophomore, Evan enrolled in SAIL’s performing arts camp, which meant he was responsible for helping to write—and then perform—an entire original play. In one week.

“I absolutely loved it,” he said. “I loved putting on everything, developing it all with our group, and making new friends. It was all great.”

Students enrolled in the performing arts camp learned about Elizabethan storytelling, period-appropriate music and dances, and archetypal characters. Then, under the direction of Brian McWhorter, SAIL counselor and instructor of music in the School of Music and Dance, they turned their newfound knowledge into a play they wrote and performed themselves.

SAIL was launched in 2005 by economics professors Bruce Blonigen and Bill Harbaugh, as a week-long academic camp for 15 students. Since then it has grown considerably, and is now a two-week academy for 8th through 12th-grade students, with more than 12 different camps on offer for 225 students. Attendees write college prep essays, learn about admissions and financial aid options, tour the campus, meet with current students and professors, and attend classes designed to familiarize them with campus life and encourage them to continue their studies after their high school graduation.

The UO’s world-class professors volunteer their time to teach the SAIL classes, giving potentially at-risk students exposure to college. The results so far have been impressive: SAIL students are more likely to complete high school in four years and are twice as likely to attend college as their peers, and in fall 2014 a record number of students—in terms of both percentages and raw numbers—attended college, including a record number accepted to the UO. For those students who go on to enroll at the UO, the program continues to be a big part of their lives.

“I meet with them throughout the year to make sure they’re staying on track,” said Lara Fernandez, executive director of SAIL. “Our office has become a meeting spot, a home away from home on campus. Every year, I raise funds to help support and hire four to six SAIL students to work-study positions.”

Those students aid Fernandez with her mentoring program, visiting high schools statewide to meet with at-risk students and recruit for SAIL. A scholarship program is also in place, helping SAIL alumni with their expenses once they enroll in college.

“Many SAIL students don’t see themselves being successful—even through high school,” said Anthony Castro, a former SAIL student who now volunteers as a SAIL mentor. “SAIL gives them a reason to want to aim higher and finish out their degree or maybe even study abroad. In SAIL, they stress that you can do anything while you’re at college. You can study abroad or do an internship. We definitely influence students in a positive manner. We motivate them toward college and beyond.”

Across Oregon, SAIL is being recognized as an exemplary program that helps at-risk youth enter college and succeed. Recently, the Oregon Education Investment Board lauded SAIL as one of the state’s top three innovative programs—the only one for high school students that was recognized. The University of Oregon’s supporters have taken notice as well, leading to the recent contribution made by an anonymous donor, a gift large enough to cement SAIL’s place at the UO.

“The donor is a special person whose enthusiasm keeps me excited about what I’m doing and has inspired SAIL staff to work harder,” said Lara Fernandez, associate director of SAIL. “This donation will be the backbone for SAIL, and we could not continue doing this without the support.”

The endowment covers a portion of SAIL’s operational costs in perpetuity, expenses that include school supplies, meals, t-shirts for attendees, the work-study program, scholarships for SAIL alumni who attend the UO, a mentoring program, and related administrative costs.

It also means the program has a stable place from which to grow—and growth is needed, as the program is now so popular that more SAIL alumni are attending the UO than the program can afford to provide scholarships and work-study stipends for.

The public will soon be able to help SAIL and its students, thanks to both a challenge element contained within the endowment and a new program the UO is launching in October. SAIL will be the pilot project for DuckFunder, the UO’s new crowdfunding platform, and donations will be matched dollar for dollar. The goal is to improve what the program already offers students, and allow Fernandez to offer something extra that will make it even more attractive to potential students: the opportunity to live on campus during the camp.

“We would love to put together some kind of housing stipend, because none of our students can afford to live on campus and have the full college experience,” she said.

The chance to live on the UO campus, literally following in the footsteps of legendary UO heroes and heroines Steve Prefontaine, BS ’73; Ken Kesey, BS ’57; Renee James, BS ’86, MBA ’92; and Ann Curry, BA ’78—as well as the toga-wearing antihero John “Bluto” Blutarsky—would make an exceptional program even more exceptional, and would make the program even more accessible to Oregon high schoolers.

And that, ultimately, is the point. The world can always use more experts in cognitive neuroscience, social psychology, forensics, and alternative energy sources (and maybe even mindreading?), and SAIL aims to ensure students from disadvantaged backgrounds have equal opportunities to become those experts as their peers.

And for their part, those future experts—as well as the faculty members involved—can’t get enough of the program.

“I did international studies last year and absolutely loved it, it was so much fun,” said Amber. “This year I got an email asking me if I wanted to go, and I said of course I want to go! So I signed up again, and here I am.”

If you would like to support SAIL, see next month’s alumni news for an announcement about DuckFunder.