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Summer Search
By Kerry Brophy
Jabali Sawicki stands on a summit during his 1993 NOLS Alaska Backpacking course, an experience he now shares with his students at an all-boys school in Brooklyn.

The poet Henry David Thoreau once called summer the “interval between hope and fulfillment.” Through a program called Summer Search, a select group of low-income high school students get to experience this fulfillment at NOLS when the stretched-out days of summer arrive.

Summer Search sends about 600 students each summer on adventures designed to foster leadership. Of these, more than a dozen attend a NOLS course while school is out. Summer Search picks students for NOLS courses who have demonstrated resiliency in overcoming hardships in their lives…lives that are far-removed from a NOLS experience.

Lawrence "Omar" Phillips took a North Cascades backpacking course in 2001 through Summer Search Boston. Omar is currently a sophomore at Georgia Tech.

Former NOLS Instructor Jay Jacobs is Summer Search’s executive director and says that NOLS is part of the summer learning program because it teaches students to put their troubled lives back in their own hands. “At NOLS,” Jacobs says, “it’s on you to do it—if you don’t pack your pack right, your stuff will blow away. Our kids live in environments where what happens is out of their control. But NOLS teaches that you have tremendous personal mastery and the ability to manage your own situation.”

Jabali Sawicki, who took an Alaska Backpacking course in 1993 as part of Summer Search, remembers this lesson well. “When I was on top of the world, exhausted, hungry and proud, I realized that I had accomplished the impossible,” he remembers of the course. “All other struggles, obstacles and challenges paled in comparison. The streets I grew up on, the skeptics, poverty and race, everything that stood between me and my success could be scaled like the frozen peaks of Alaska.”

Sawicki, now 27, runs a charter school for African American boys in New York City. And his success is not unusual. From high-powered investors, to lawyers and Harvard graduates, NOLS-Summer Search students reach some impressive heights. Jacobs, who runs Summer Search offices in San Francisco, Boston, Napa-Sonoma, New York City, and Seattle, believes NOLS gives inner-city kids some common ground in the cutthroat business world. He likes the story of NOLS-Summer Search grad Mohammed Bey, who applied for a highly competitive internship while at Georgetown Law School. During the process, an interviewer looked at his resume and her eyes lit up when she saw NOLS: “I’m a NOLS graduate!” she said. Jacobs believes she knew right away the leadership skills Bey would bring to the internship—and that probably helped him get it.

Jacobs also has fun listening to the stories of recent NOLS graduates when they return from the wilderness. “It’s so fun when students come back to see these inner city kids talking about technical climbing skills,” he says. “I always think the NOLS experience has got to be one of the most unheard-of things to happen in their neighborhoods.”

Back in Brooklyn, Sawicki knows that many of his students will never see the kind of wild he saw in Alaska. But that’s okay, because he can always talk about it. He talks about things like courage, perseverance, scholarship, responsibility and teamwork. Most of all, he tries to explain to them what accomplishment feels like.

“When you are standing on the top of a mountain in Alaska overlooking the valley below, your perspective changes,” Sawicki says. “How you view yourself in relation to the world is forever altered. All my teenage worries, fears and anxieties were so far away and so small compared to the mountains. So many people said I would never be successful with my life, but there I was close to the sun, muscles aching, yodeling on a mountaintop ready to return to my life and continue climbing.”

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