Erin Yellow Hair, 16, does not come from a long line of college graduates, but thanks to a summer workshop she is setting her sights on Harvard University.
Though her family lives on the poorest Indian reservation in the country, in South Dakota, Yellow Hair decided early on that drugs, alcohol and teen pregnancy, which have overtaken her home, had no part in her life.
“I knew there was more than that, and this is just not what I wanted,” Yellow Hair said. “My grandparents helped me focus on education, and science became my passion. And now I’m hoping to get into Harvard.”
Yellow Hair is one of 45 underprivileged minority students from around the country participating in the High School High Scholar program, a five-week intensive workshop sponsored by the Aspen Science Center. On Tuesday, the group made a pit stop at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
CU physics professor Kevin Stenson led the students on a tour of the physics labs and performed a few special demonstrations to help pique the students’ interest.
“Since these students are already showing a special interest in science and math, our job is to help them continue that interest in the future,” Stenson said. “And of course it would be great to get a few of them interested in CU as well — not only to boost our department but also our minority population on campus.”
Christopher Martinez, a Dallas 16-year-old who’s in his second year with the High Scholar program, said he’s considering attending CU after graduating from high school in 2012.
Martinez would be the first member of his family to graduate from college and hopes to be an example for his younger sister.
“I want to show her that we are not limited to what our predecessors accomplished,” Martinez said. “We grew up thinking that we would get through high school and join the working class, but there’s so many more possibilities — and that’s what I want for me and her.”
After college, Martinez said he hopes to study the science of gravity at a research lab in Switzerland.
Martinez and Yellow Hair have already begun working with High Scholar’s college counselor, Betsy Bingham-Johns, who will work with the students throughout their high school careers to help make college possible.
“I help them realize that college is possible for them first, and then we work on finding the right college for each student, the financial support they need and getting them through the process of applying,” Bingham-Johns said.
For many of the participants, it’s not just the application process and financial aid that can be off-putting when it comes to the university experience, said Colleen Doyle, director of operations for Aspen Science Center.
“We’re not just trying to promote the math and science aspects of their education but trying to help them prepare for the whole college experience,” Doyle said. “Many of these kids didn’t grow up with a plan to go to college or anyone who can tell them about it, so we try to get them ready academically and socially for the campus experience.”
Yellow Hair said the program has done much more than just help her advance her education.
“It gives me hope that I can do this,” she said. “Now, besides just wanting to go to college and excel, I have the support to help me get there.”