Program helps students search the world for education opportunities

September 15, 2009

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Ilham Abdulrahman, 18, spent the month of August living with a host family in Turkey as part of a self-exploration and cultural exchange program sponsored by Summer Search. Contributed

Ilham Abdulrahman, 18, spent the month of August living with a host family in Turkey as part of a self-exploration and cultural exchange program sponsored by Summer Search. Contributed

Two years ago, Klahanie residents, Ilham Abdulrahman, 18, and Zakaria Abdulrahman, 17, never thought they’d experience the world away from their family.

Both siblings traveled this summer as part of a self-exploration and cultural exchange program sponsored by Summer Search, a national nonprofit designed to help students with limited means explore the world and attain success in high school, college and beyond.

“It was amazing,” she said, of her trip to Turkey. “I was so scared. But I’ve been to JFK airport and lugged my luggage around the world. I can do anything now.”

“It was awesome,” Zakaria said, of his Outward Bound wilderness excursion in Oregon. “I never thought I would do something like that.”

Being two of 10 children and having moved much of their lives — from Somalia to Pakistan, then to North Carolina in 2001 and Issaquah in 2003 — the two preferred to sit back and watch the world around them.

“I wouldn’t speak up in class,” Ilham said. “I would get home and be like, ‘Man! Why didn’t I say that?’ and I would be frustrated.”

When the family moved to Bellevue for a year in 2007, the two siblings enrolled at Sammamish High School and all that changed.

At Sammamish High, Ilham met a counselor who nominated her for Summer Search.

“I was like, ‘What is this?’” she said, of the thick packet and application. “But when I took it home, it said I could travel and they would help me get to college. I got the thumbs up from my family.”

As part of Summer Search’s program, both siblings receive mentorship services, academic advising through high school and college, preparatory services for college entrance exams, and social networking opportunities during national and international trips.

“There is so much potential,” said Mia Ellis, executive director for the Seattle chapter of Summer Search. “We help students think bigger than just the now. We let them think of what they want to experience, what they want for themselves and in their lives.”

One of the best ways to prepare them to reach their goals is to help them find strength in themselves with independent travel, Ellis said.

“They are doing practical things, like stepping on a plane or train, things they never thought were possible, but are very empowering as a way to help them see they can attain their goals,” said Rebecca Sullivan, Summer Search mentor.

The program allowed Ilham to experience life as a child instead of as a caretaker for other siblings, said Amy Russell, another Summer Search mentor.

“When you’re that mature that young, you just need to be a kid,” Russell said. “It was important for Ilham to find that balance.”

“I always asked what I could do, but they wouldn’t let me do anything,” Ilham said. “It was so nice to be a guest, go to people’s houses and travel with them.”

The Outward Bound excursion challenged Zakaria to learn new skills and conquer his fears.

Outward Bound is a company that brings teens from all walks of life together for an outdoor leadership and survival wilderness excursion.

“The hardest part were the river challenges, because I don’t swim that great,” Zakaria said. “But I did three of them in the river, and that has helped me realize that I’m not afraid to try my best and to not give up.”

“His counselors said that when he started, he tended to follow, but by the end, he became the one others followed,” Russell said. “It is really amazing.”

Because of the experience, Zakaria said he plans to turn out for the basketball team this year, is taking mostly Advanced Placement courses and hopes to earn a spot at the University of Washington.

Ilham said she no longer thinks of what she should have said.

“I just say it,” she said. “I’m not afraid to show people who I am.”

But it isn’t all fun and games; it takes dedication and hard work to be part of Summer Search, Ellis said.

Students are required to call their mentors once a week and report on their goals. Mentors help students wade through social and peer pressures. Mentorship ties also stay with students through college, helping them adjust. Because of that, 89 percent of all the program’s students who enter college graduate with a degree, Ellis said.

Once she graduates this year, Ilham said she hopes to attend an instate college to pursue medicine or writing. And she said she is thankful she goes with ties to Summer Search, which she later hopes to give back to.

“We’re like a family,” Ilham said. “I want to help the students who will come after me.”

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Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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