Alexis Wheeler is no stranger to an uphill climb.
An avid hiker, she talks excitedly about the varied geography of her home state of Washington, not only its glaciers and mountain ranges but also its rainforests, deserts, lakes, and massive inland sea.
Her path to college was also marked by peaks and valleys. Her family faced financial difficulties, but she was fortunate enough to attend a well-resourced public high school in her hometown of Bellevue. It taught her a valuable lesson about access to opportunity.
“If you’re at an elite private school or a magnet public school where the norm is going to a four-year college, then you can basically just follow the current,” she said. “But if that’s not the norm, you’re left to discover it on your own,” as school staff are often overstretched, and family and friends may not have the time or firsthand knowledge to provide much guidance.
And that’s the reason Wheeler founded the Harvard Club of Seattle’s Crimson Achievement Program (CAP) in 2018. The initiative helps illuminate the path to college for high-potential ninth- and 10th-graders from Western Washington school districts in low-income areas.
“At its core, CAP is about fostering sustainable, systemic change through interconnection and interdependence — everyone contributes something to the program and everyone gains something,” Wheeler said.
Alexis Wheeler: We've invited eight and ninth graders from Highline School District in Washington to come and visit the college and the rest of Harvard University, have a chance to learn a bit more about college, and the opportunities available to them.
Michael Bervell: As a mentor I'm paired up with one of the Crimson Achievement Program scholars and my job is to guide them for this year and beyond. What's interesting about these students is they're mostly first gen and so this is their first opportunity to be able to see an amazing opportunity like this.
Alexis Wheeler: If you're from a district where the majority of students go to college, that's kind of an expectation, you kind of just go with the flow.
Michael Bervell: What would it have been like if my parents didn't go to college?
Alexis Wheeler: It's not as obvious, it's not as clear
Michael Bervell: I feel like this mentorship program is like being that older sibling or that guiding parent for students who don't have any of that.
Kathleen Nguyen: I felt like maybe I can't really like, fit in, you know? But then we got more into the tour, I felt welcomed, I feel like maybe I can go here.
Alexis Wheeler: We're trying to catch them now and have four years to really give them solid mentorship and help them explore their options and support whatever dreams they have for their next step.
Eight CAP scholars were chosen from a pool of 50 applicants in the first year. During their high school years, they receive free professional college test prep and supplemental aid for educational enrichment opportunities in exchange for 10 hours per year of volunteer service in which they support and promote the college/career readiness of their peers.
The group also traveled to Boston and Cambridge for a five-day, all-expenses-paid trip to visit Harvard and MIT, where they toured the campuses, sat in on classes, and met most of their CAP mentors, a select group of Harvard students and recent grads hailing from Washington state.
“Lasting change doesn’t usually come from the outside, and it’s not top-down,” Wheeler said of peer-to-peer mentoring. “It’s a lot easier to produce when the community is invested and engaged.”
The first group of students came from Highline Public Schools, where the community and district — led by 2018 National Superintendent of the Year Susan Enfield, Ed.M. ’02, Ed.D. ’08 — are dedicated to ensuring each student “graduates prepared for the future they choose.” The district has made tremendous strides in raising graduation rates, but nearly one out of five students still doesn’t finish high school, Wheeler explained. Only about one-third of graduates enter a four-year college within a year, and the lower-income students who do apply are less likely to try for selective schools, even though those institutions often have more generous financial aid programs and are thus more affordable.
As CAP matures, Wheeler, who has been president of the Harvard Club of Seattle since 2017, hopes not only that its students will be better prepared to take their next steps, but also that the lessons the program imparts will echo across the region, resulting in enhanced graduation rates, more students considering college, and a more-informed selection process.
Together with CAP mentors, Wheeler says she’s looking forward to playing trail guide to more of those students facing their own uphill climbs. “We’re trying to make sure that students are aware of what’s out there and are as savvy about the process as possible, as early as possible.”