Nonprofit of the Month: STEP (Student Expedition Program)

This year alone, STEP: Student Expedition Program–which educates and empowers low-income Arizona high school students to enroll in and graduate from college–helped 73 graduates receive 282 college acceptances. In the fall, STEP graduates will attend 34 colleges, including Arizona State University, Brown, Harvard and Princeton. Here, Tracy Baynes, founder and president/CEO of STEP, discusses the nonprofit’s remarkable Alaska expedition program, how the pandemic has affected STEP students and how readers can help.

What is the mission of STEP? We equip low-income Arizona students with the knowledge, confidence, leadership and self-advocacy skills to successfully transition to college and attain a four-year college degree. A majority of our students are the first generation in their family to seek a college degree. Ninety-six percent of STEP’s college-prep program graduates are in college or have attained a college degree.

What prompted the start of the nonprofit? For years, I’ve instructed and facilitated experiential education programs that are incredibly life transforming for students – NOLS, Outward Bound, Semester at Sea programs – the latter sailing on tall ships. (I have a doctorate in Oceanography.) Over the years, I started to realize that I was mostly working with wealthy students and wondered how I might bring these programs to a broader range of youth. I started researching education statistics and was surprised to find a large educational attainment gap between high-income and low-income students. I felt strongly that the types of experiential education programs I’d been working in could help students gain the confidence and leadership skills necessary to graduate from high school and go on to attain a college degree. The focus of our original program (starting in 2004) was a life-transforming leadership expedition in the wilderness of Alaska for three weeks each summer. That is still an important part of our program, but we’ve now expanded to provide our students with a comprehensive, multi-year college-prep program, guiding them through every step of the college preparation and application process.

What is the greatest reward in being involved with the nonprofit? Working with our students and families and seeing our graduates thrive in college and career. I also love witnessing the positive impact our students have on their peers, younger siblings and cousins, and extended family and community.

“Before STEP, going to a place like Harvard was merely a pipe dream. Even if I did have the confidence to apply, I had no idea where to begin. STEP held my hand every step of the way, from my academics and extracurriculars, the application process, and even having difficult conversations with my family about life outside of Arizona. STEP gave me the support that I needed in order to be able to sit in a lecture hall with world leaders and, for that, I will forever be grateful.”

Abia Khan, North High School, matriculated to Harvard

What is the biggest challenge the nonprofit faces? Has the pandemic affected the needs of STEP? The pandemic has been very hard for our students and families. Our students lived the nightmare of the virus infecting them and their loved ones, sometimes with devastating consequences. School closures and isolation at home negatively impacted mental health. The quality of our students’ education took a serious hit. For many, they lost a reliable source of meals and income, and the support system of friends and teachers at school. The return to school was also very challenging for our students. They had to readjust to renewed rigor, work load and expectations after months of lost course content. During the height of the pandemic, STEP also shifted to Zoom workshops. Our students and families are still struggling with the impact of the pandemic on their health, mental health, income, resources and education. STEP is now back to holding in-person workshops and expanding our curriculum and resources around mental health.

Tell us more about STEP’s incredible Alaska expedition. It IS incredible! Our rising seniors are given the opportunity to spend three weeks in the Alaskan wilderness with three highly-trained NOLS instructors and 11 of their peers. This year, we ran one sea-kayaking expedition in Prince William Sound and two backpacking expeditions in the Talkeetna Mountains. When our students first arrive in Alaska, they are faced with a completely foreign environment and the adjustment they need to make can seem very daunting. In the first week, they learn how to set up shelter, get water, cook meals – generally take care of all their basic needs away from civilization – while also learning how to sea-kayak, backpack, read maps and plan a travel day. Days are rainy, cold and buggy. Our sea-kayakers learn how to self-rescue should they capsize. To do so they must intentionally roll over in a kayak in the cold Alaskan waters (under the instructors’ expert supervision), do a “wet exit,” right the kayak and get back in. As you can imagine, their confidence gets a huge boost once they do this, but NO one wants to do it! I think most students, during that first week are thinking they made a huge mistake when they accepted our expedition invitation. The second week, our students become more comfortable in their new reality and competent in field tasks.  The third week they are thriving and leading their peers! This is Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” and they are transformed by it. Our students return home with greatly increased self-confidence, an enhanced ability to meet unfamiliar challenges, a greater sense of personal responsibility, and a recognition that they can tackle any challenge ahead of them as long as they believe in themselves and do the hard work.

What are your goals for 2022? Our goals continue to be to serve our students to the very best of our ability – equipping them with all the tools they need to make their dream of attaining a college degree a reality. At STEP, we like to say our goal is to become obsolete in our students’ lives by the time they graduate from our program and head off to college. That is to say, our goal is to equip them with everything they need to successfully achieve their college and career goals. We know, along the way, they will be role models to many!

How can readers help? We encourage readers to connect with STEP on FacebookInstagram and LinkedIn. Readers can stay current on STEP news, scholar updates and College-Prep Program highlights by subscribing to our newsletter and reading our blog posts.

STEP relies on the generous support of donors throughout the year. The easiest way to contribute to STEP’s mission is to donate online via our website. Readers can also select STEP as their designated charity on Amazon Smile or at Fry’s Food Stores. Donations to STEP qualify for the Arizona State Tax Credit, up to $400 for individuals and $800 for married couples, filing jointly.  

All contributions will go directly to helping equip low-income Arizona high school students with the knowledge, confidence and self-advocacy skills to successfully transition to college and attain a college degree. Thank you for supporting our motivated scholars and families!

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