Making Summer Transformative – A Mentor’s Perspective

The following is a guest post written by members of our Summer Search Bay Area team, as part of their Summer Experience Challenge campaign.


Summer 2019 is off and running! At Summer Search, this means we’ve got 1,000 young people scattered across the country and the world on powerful experiential journeys.

It’s not only an exciting time for our students, but also for our staff! We sat down with a few members of our Summer Search Bay Area team to learn what goes into preparing for a summer experience, and what makes these trips truly transformative for our young people.

In our conversation, we explore how mentors and summer programs staff work together to equip students with agency, efficacy, and a sense of expansiveness from the moment they join Summer Search and through the years of mentorship that follow. Read more to see powerful examples of each and learn how Summer Search’s mentoring supports our students in integrating these profound experiences into their lives.

Introduce yourself!

Bay Area Summer Program MentorsFrom left to right, top to bottom: Summer Search mentors Brian Mertens, Yining Chiu, Mira Fielding, and Nicol Gaffney.

Brian Mertens: I have worked at Summer Search for three years. During that time, I’ve served as a Program Associate, and Senior Program Associate, and a Program Manager.

Mira Fielding: I joined the Summer Search team as an intern in 2012. I rejoined joined the team as a mentor in the Petaluma Office this year, where I mentor a caseload of 30 sophomores.

Nicol Gaffney: I started at Summer Search as a mentor in our Petaluma Office in 2013. I became our full-time dedicated Summer Programs Manager in 2016.

Yining Chiu: I’ve been a mentor for the past two and a half years. I mentor a large group of Seniors based in Oakland, Hayward, and San Francisco, who I began working with in their Sophomore year.

How do you engage with Summer Programs in your role?

Summer Search staff on a Deer Hill summer experienceNicol (center) with fellow Summer Search Bay Area mentors Jimmy (far left), Anceline (second from left), and Julia (far right) on a special visit to a Deer Hill Expeditions program.

Brian: Leading up to students’ trips, I work with summer program partners (like Deer Hill Expeditions), mentors, students, and families to understand the students’ unique needs so that we can match them with the best summer program. Once matched, I work with their mentors to troubleshoot difficulties that could arise during the trip.

Mira: As a new mentor for sophomores, I am in the early stages of building a relationship with 30 sophomores as they get to know Summer Search and prepare for their first trip. This early relationship-building work is important, because it helps me cater to their needs as I work to pair them with the right summer program and discuss their intentions for the trip.

Nicol: I engage with Summer Programs in every way! I see my role as serving the mentors, students, families, and our program partners to source and support the most significant summer experiences possible. This work involves summer partner selection, collaborative curriculum development, matching students to summer experiences, events planning, training development and delivery (for both Summer Search staff and our program partners), relationship management, student support, budget management, and logistics management—especially applications, equipment, and travel booking.

Yining: My relationships with my students intersect with summer programs from start to finish. With my current caseload of students, I interviewed many of them after they applied to Summer Search, prepared them for their wilderness trip once they were accepted, facilitated their return home conversations, helped them prepare for the service-learning trip the following year, and helped them process the lessons from both experiences in the two years since.

Tell us about a time when a summer trip impacted a student’s life.

Global-Glimpse-2018Summer Search students on an international service program with Global Glimpse.

Mira: This question reminds me of a student, Jay. The summer trips served as a launching pad to build trust. Through our prep conversations, Jay felt safe enough to share his hopes for being a Summer Searcher, some of the trauma he’s experienced, and his intentions for his summer trip. With that information in hand, Nicol was able to help Jay work through his trip options, and Jay demonstrated enough trust to voice his opinions. Throughout the process, Jay tackled challenges with paperwork, flights, and more. Seeing his growth in the midst of it gives me hope that he’ll not only finish his trip but will also stay the course throughout his Summer Search journey.

Yining: Sometimes these trips leave young people with questions to explore. One of my students was extremely involved in Latinx organizing. She prided herself in being a first-generation American and identified deeply with her Mexican roots. She went to the Yucatan and was jarred to be perceived as white during her time abroad. She realized that race is not perceived the same way everywhere, that the Bay Area is a bubble, and that in addition to thinking about herself as Latinx she needs to consider questions around what it means to be an American abroad in the international community.

I also worked with one student, a senior in a Latinx community, who had never ever been in a predominantly white community. She went on trip just before the 2016 election with a majority of white students from wealthy backgrounds. As someone coming from immigrant community, she was shocked by some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric she heard. Nevertheless, she took it upon herself to ask questions of her peers and build real friendships. She chose to be incredibly empathetic and curious when she could have chosen otherwise. Now one of her goals as she attends UC Berkeley is to build bridges for dialogue between people from different communities.

How do the summer experiences fit in with Summer Search’s overall mentoring?

Peer Group MentoringBay Area Summer Searchers at a Peer Group Mentoring session.

Nicol: The two consecutive summer trips provide a novel high demand/high support stretch-experience for students to plan for, try out, and grow through. Our youth are leaders of their own growth by courageously defining and reconciling who they were before, during, and after their experiences. Over time, this allows them to develop an integrated identity — a sense of self that is consistent across time and space.

That is what we mean when we say these experiences are transformative. Once youth experience a version of themselves that is more authentic, they leave behind what no longer resonates [with themselves] and move toward what does. In this way, our youth are more able to achieve a sense of thriving that’s built on their definition of purpose and well-being.

Brian: Our objective is to give the students agency – the opportunity to decide for themselves. This is most in focus during their junior year in which students get to decide between an international service trip or an educational trip. While making these decisions, students are also having to juggle advice from parents, friends, mentors, and teachers that is (at times) divergent. This is great practice for making decisions about their trajectory after high school. Practicing agency allows them to understand their own motivations and evaluate which opportunities will help them grow in the ways that they want to.

Yining: Some trips are clearly enjoyable to students from the outset and catalyze growth that is immediately recognizable. Other trips are less obviously fun, and work like irritants that develop students’ strengths over a time. Both kinds of trips equip students with agency to manage realities and relationships they wouldn’t normally encounter in their day-to-day. It also gives them a chance to see themselves and the world in a different light — they may learn that they love an area of learning they’ve never explored or realize that they are happier without their phones! Students open socially, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, and they have the chance to cultivate themselves in all these areas.

How do you support students in processing their summer experience once they’ve returned home?

Rock Climbing with NOLSSummer Searchers on a wilderness/leadership program with NOLS.

Yining: The process looks different at varying points of the mentorship timeline. Immediately, my job as a mentor is to help them identify significant moments from their trip — be it relationships, experiences, questions, things that they enjoyed and cherished — even if it’s not clear at the time why it’s meaningful. Over time, I encourage them to reflect upon the reasons why these moments were significant for them, what insights they might yield, and then act as a mirror for how they are or aren’t integrating these lessons into life.

Nicol: These experiences provide a fulcrum-moment, after which our students can better leverage their agency. The magic in it is that it’s not theoretical — they are living big on the trips and in the mentoring afterward when they do the work of processing. This highly-supported action-and-reflection cycle is the bedrock of our positive youth development approach. It allows us to develop incredibly vivid experiences and close relationships that are defined by their pursuit of the beliefs, mindsets, and behaviors that support their purpose and well-being.

In your work with Summer Search, what have you learned about the power of summer experiences in young people’s lives?

Daniela-DEVA-group-sillySummer Searchers on a wilderness trip with Deva Healing Center.

Brian: The most impactful and powerful experiences come from young people who were scared but felt the willingness to do it and accepted the push from mentors. Finding the right spot between challenge and comfort is where change happens. Sometimes this looks like venturing out, and sometimes it looks like setting boundaries. Our job is to listen to our students, identify opportunities, and help them discover their agency in the process.

Mira: These trips give students a tangible way to have ownership over their intentions. The wilderness removes the social-media driven performance culture and gives them the space to be themselves. It’s raw. Whether they’re tired, stressed, surprised, or excited, they’re ready to show who they really are in an authentic way. It’s amazing that we are giving the student the opportunity to claim and use their power.

Yining: It’s also not just the experience in and of itself. There are plenty of programs where you can have an educational or outdoor experience. At Summer Search, a summer experience is not just something that a student will consume. Through the mentorship that surrounds it, the experience maps onto students’ growth journey and then is mined for the lessons it yields long after the summer is over.


You can help a young person discover their best self this summer by investing in their Summer Search experience. Will you join the Summer Experience Challenge by making a gift today?

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