- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2008

A group of area high school seniors got lessons Saturday in what it takes to succeed in college.

They learned to work hard, to look out for each other, and to pull themselves up by, well, by rope ladders and such.

The Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund, a D.C. nonprofit that provides social, financial and academic assistance to city students who hope to attend college, kicked off its new academic school year at the Geary F. Eppley Recreation Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The program’s entering class of about 80 high school seniors scaled a daunting and byzantine 50-foot-high obstacle course of ropes, logs and walls, several of which were suspended in mid-air.

“The ropes course is used as a metaphor for what our students will encounter throughout the school year and as young adults,” said Susie Kay, founder and president of the fund, known as HDSF. “We want to send the message that the journey from high school to college is long, tough and daunting, and the only way to accomplish that journey is through the help of teamwork.”

The ropes course is a prelude to the HDSF Empowerment Program, which pairs each of the 80 students with college-educated professionals who volunteer as mentors. Many of the students are the first generation of their families to attend college.

Most students completed the course; however some who managed to climb half-way up were too frightened or fatigued to go on, even in the face of loud and constant encouragement from their classmates.

David Mayers, 17, of Benjamin Banneker High School, completed the course but froze at the very top.

“When I got up on the top platform I couldn’t even think, I means it’s 50 feet up, it’s nuts,” said David, who’s mother Barbara is a mentor. David, who plans to study communications, eventually overcame his fear and came down safely.

Adrian Sutton, 17, of HD Woodson School of Business and Finance, said he too got spooked when he took a look down after completing the climb.

“Getting on top was easy; it’s coming back down that was the scariest,” said Adrian, who wants to study business and broadcast journalism at Morehouse College in Georgia and become a radio disc jockey when he graduates.

HDSF was started in 1996 when Ms. Kay, then an American government teacher at HD Woodson High School, set out to raise scholarship money to help a few of her students offset the cost of college and tuition. She organized a charity basketball tournament that raised $4,000. Since then, the group that she thought would only last for one day has helped send more than 900 inner-city students to college.

The program includes college prep courses and personalized workshops tailored to each student’s interests and strengths. The mentor is responsible for keeping track of the student’s academic progress and providing counseling and encouragement wherever possible.

In addition, the students attend a four-hour mentoring seminar each month at George Washington University with speeches by successful people. Notable past speakers include former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and PricewaterhouseCoopers Managing Partner Chris Simmons.

HDSF provides scholarships worth as much as $5,000 to qualified students, but mentoring is its primary role.

“These students just need a doorway. It’s a matter of the right resources and it’s an investment in a person’s future,” said HDSF spokesman Eddie Fam.

Mr. Fam says the ropes course is designed to open up a new frontier in the way the students think about their potential.

“Once the students complete the ropes course, they wonder ‘what else can I accomplish?’ That’s what Hoop Dreams is all about”

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