Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Seattle's Rainier Scholars: Inspiring the Next Generation of Leaders

August 27, 2015

The classic question: what did you do this summer?

Danait Yemane, a junior at Johns Hopkins University, spent her summer traveling but her destination wasn’t a sandy beach or a European tour. Instead, she headed to the West African country of Mali—helping women achieve better maternal health services as a researcher for the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health.

She always knew she wanted to make a difference. Now, as a college student, she’s helping others while balancing her studies with internships, student organizations, and part-time jobs. It’s not easy – real life never is – but Danait was ready for the challenge. She credits Seattle’s Rainier Scholars with preparing her for success in college and in life. Rainier Scholars helped her navigate her education pathway with a rigorous academic program, while supporting her as she balanced family life—helping her father, mother, brother and sister adjust to the U.S. after fleeing the politically unstable African country of Eritrea.

Danait always knew she wanted to go to college, but didn’t know what options would be available with her family’s financial constraints. Rainier Scholars connected her with resources and scholarships she otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

 “We give students a sense of their own capabilities, to find out what’s really possible for them.”

Rainier Scholars is a nonprofit organization in South King County that provides low-income students of color and their families with comprehensive leadership development and personalized support from 6th grade through college graduation. Their efforts to improve academic outcomes and increase college graduation rates have changed lives and opened countless doors of opportunity.

“I learned not to take no for an answer,” Danait recalls as she reflects on the program. “So many of my friends didn’t know they could pursue certain things, but I knew if I could go the extra mile, I could pass barriers.” 

Danait applied for Rainier Scholars in 5th grade thanks to the encouragement of another family with a child in the program. After a rigorous admissions process—including a variety of assessments, family surveys, teacher recommendations, and an interview—Danait was selected to be a member of the fifth cohort.

“We give students a sense of their own capabilities, to find out what’s really possible for them,” says Rainier Scholars Executive Director Sarah Smith. She describes the program as helping kids unlock their own potential through an 11-year journey of academic and leadership development that includes intense instruction, counseling, career preparation, and college support.

The organization received an early grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, because the Pacific Northwest team was impressed by Rainer Scholars’ commitment to engaging deeply with families and students, and providing rigorous, real-time supports to their scholars.

Rainier Scholars began serving the program’s first cohort of students in 2002. In 2013, members of the first cohort graduated from college, with 90% earning college degrees within five years—a tremendous milestone for the program and for the students and families they serve.

 “We treat parents with tremendous respect. They are the most important force for students.”

Demand for the program has grown as more families learn about Rainier Scholars and its benefits. The first year brought in 250 applicants. Now, cohorts are consistently drawing upwards of 500 applicants for just 65 spots. With the increased demand came an expansion of services, including a robust leadership development program, more internship offerings, and better data to support students as they progress through the program.

Part of Rainier Scholars’ popularity and success is its emphasis on parent involvement. Many families hear about the program through conversations with other parents in the community. Rainier Scholars provides translations in multiple languages, and the staff make visits to every family’s home. Parents are engaged through every step of the process.

“We treat parents with tremendous respect. They are the most important force for students,” says Smith. Rainier Scholars offers a simple promise to parents: if you work hard for your kids, and they remain committed to their growth, educational opportunities will happen.

Like other students, Abe Bui’s parents dreamed that he would become the first in their family to go to college; they just weren’t sure if it was possible. “College was always something that was pushed in my family. Rainier Scholars helped me see why I needed to do it.” 

Abe was admitted to Rainier Scholars as he entered 6th grade. He was part of one of the first cohorts—blazing a trail to higher education in a cohort of 60 scholars. It was the most difficult work he has ever endured, but also the most rewarding. When asked what advice he gives to current and future scholars, Abe had a simple response: “Don’t quit.”

It’s that kind of perseverance that helped him through his journey. He is a proud graduate from the University of Pennsylvania and now, as a financial analyst, he feels prepared for the challenge. At Rainier Scholars, Abe spent hours doing extra preparation that helped him excel at school and college. In fact, scholars receive more than 700 hours of additional instruction time. This “academic boot camp” helps scholars thrive in college preparatory settings.

 “Don’t quit.”

Danait and Abe, who today act as mentors for younger scholars in the program, both credit Rainier Scholars with teaching them how to be persistent and proactive. Rainier Scholars gave them—and hundreds of other scholars from around Western Washington—the tools and knowledge needed to achieve their potential.

Danait and Abe are not the only students finding success. Here are just a few of the Rainier Scholars' results:

  • 100% college admission for first seven cohorts
  • 96% of these students went on to attend four-year colleges 
  • In 2015-2016, 164 scholars will attend 64 different colleges and universities
  • Over 400 internships with corporate, nonprofit, small business and government employers

The Gates Foundation and Rainier Scholars are both celebrating 15 year anniversaries, and as we look back on our partnerships and what we have accomplished, the stories of these students are an inspiring success. Rainier Scholars is proving that when you empower and believe in young people, they can do extraordinary things.

What did you do this summer? Students like Danait and Abe are being the change, and changing the world.

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