The 24 "guinea pigs" of Project GRAD's summer program heard a lot of advice Monday morning as the two-week program kicked off.
Respect each other. Set lofty goals. Make sure you show up when you are supposed to.
When the eclectic group of soon-to-be 10th-grade students who hail from Port Graham, Nanwalek, Nikolaevsk, Razdolna, Tyonek, Voznesenka and Ninilchik finally had a chance to speak, they clearly already had put some thought into their future.
One by one they shared their plans. One wanted to be an engineer, another a nurse and a third a dentist.
Project GRAD USA hopes it will help get them there. The organization, which made a big splash last summer when it announced plans to set down roots on the Kenai Peninsula, has done just that in other areas of the Lower 48.
Founded in Houston, it works with more than 185 schools across the country, offering scholarships, classes and career counseling to the country's most disadvantaged students.
The students were attracted to spend part of their summer studying in part by cold, hard cash. Each student who successfully attends the summer seminar will receive $150 stipend. In addition, if they complete another summer institute and maintain a 2.5 GPA, they are guaranteed a $1,000 scholarship for each year they attend college or other approved postsecondary education program.
Flanked by a row of college teachers who will be their instructors for the two weeks, the students are an unusual group. Several Alaska Natives sat next to students from the various Russian Old Believer communities. Mixed in were students from less remote locations.
It was a factor that Bob Moore, chair of Project GRAD, focused on in his opening day remarks.
"You're the pioneers for Project GRAD," he said. "You will get to know people who have different languages than you have, different beliefs and customs."
Moore told the students, who congregated in the Homer Council on the Arts building for several hours Monday morning, that hard work will take them far.
"Perseverance is more important than intellect," he said. "It's not what you know as much as the drive that you have."
Norma Holmgaard, director of federal programs for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, said she hoped the students will be challenged by the program.
"I hope you do not find the next weeks easy," she said. "I hope you have to push yourselves."
The summer institute, dubbed "Bridges to My Future," includes a jam-packed schedule of classes and events. Many of the students are living in a dorm-like situation for the two weeks. Teachers include Beth Graber, Chuck Lockey, Lauren Scharf, Sara Reineert and Jen Martin, who are all teachers or work with programs at the Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College where the classes will be taught.
Graber, who is instructing the students in study skills, was looking forward to her time with the group.
"I hope to give you tools to take with you on the road you are all headed on," she said.
Students also will participate in a trip to Peterson Bay and be offered a variety of art and recreation-related events from rock climbing to beading.
"The students in these seven schools have had their electives removed from their school schedules," school district Superintendent Donna Peterson said in a release. "The creative art schedule will open other possibilities for students in schools where we have had to drop the art program in order to buy textbooks. I'm excited for the opportunity for the students. I am glad to see so many students are taking advantage of the program."
Heather Pancratz, executive director for Project GRAD, said she is enthusiastic to get the program rolling.
"We are surrounding the participants with positive, upbeat people who want to help students achieve their dreams," she said. "We want them to know we believe in them and are willing to invest in them and their futures."
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