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Multicultural students participate in SOAR advisors

BYU students from all walks of life attend camps as counselors at SOAR. Counselors work in three sessions throughout the summer, according to counselor Gabriela Marquez. (Courtesy of Anika Pasa)

SOAR, an annual camp for high school students of all cultural backgrounds, recently wrapped up its first session on the BYU campus. Camp counselors shared how the experience lifted not only the high school students but also themselves.

According to advisor Gabriela Marquez, SOAR stands for Summer of Academic Excellence.

“SOAR is BYU’s college preparatory and scholarship program that values ​​and provides opportunities for domestic students. … Its goal is to introduce students to the BYU campus, faculty, and advisors who will guide them through the admissions process to become competitive applicants to BYU,” the Multicultural Students Services website says about the program.

SOAR holds three sessions each summer. The next two sessions in 2024 will be July 8-12 and July 15-19.

Gabriela Marquez, a SOAR consultant, is a Guatemalan from Massachusetts. As a 2016 SOAR participant, she took a lot from her experience, she said.

SOAR consultants in 2024 wear cultural attire that reflects their ethnic background. Kealohilani Grace, second from right, shared that the advisors had the opportunity to share aspects of their culture with the students during one of the nights of the camp. (Courtesy of Anika Pasa)

“I remember for a long time wanting to be like everyone else — blonde, blue eyes, tall,” Marquez said of her time at home before going to SOAR.

She developed a love for her culture during the camp. Years later, she saw a similar change in the girls she mentored at the camp, Marquez said.

“SOAR was the reason I decided to go to BYU,” Marquez said.

Before her SOAR experience, Marquez hadn’t considered BYU as a college option. But she remembers walking around campus during her week in the program and feeling like she had to be at BYU.

“I felt a really special atmosphere and definitely enjoyed my time at BYU,” she said.

Advisor Olson AhMu said he felt compelled to participate in the SOAR program this summer to give back for all the things the program has given him.

“The scholarship I received helped me a lot with my studies, and I thought it was a great way to give back,” AhMu said of her work as a SOAR advisor.

SOAR offers full scholarships to participants who are accepted to BYU. AhMu is one of those recipients.

He added that AhMu also wants to help young people who may be struggling with their identity, their high school studies or connecting with their culture.

Counselor Kealohilani Grace decided to participate in the SOAR program for two reasons.

“I think a lot of it was just, number one, meeting new people from different cultures,” Grace said. The second reason she shared was gaining experience working with teenagers, as she is a human development major.

“You really don’t know what’s going on in someone’s head. … It’s become so much more obvious to me as a SOAR advisor because you have all these students coming from different parts of the world,” Grace said. “They have so much to offer, so many different experiences, they come from different backgrounds.”

Grace also learned about the numerous opportunities, programs, and scholarships BYU offers.

“This is just the beginning of my college journey, so it’s really nice for me because it opens up new possibilities and gives me ideas about what I would like to explore or do in the future here at BYU,” she said.

Grace added that the first session was very satisfying.

“You don’t focus on yourself all week, you focus on the students you have. You put all your energy and time into helping them have a good experience,” Grace said.

She said that working as a camp counselor was a missionary experience for her, as it was for AhMu.

“I didn’t expect it to be spiritual in nature,” AhMu said.

He explained how impressed the boys in his group were with the change that had taken place in them after their time at SOAR.

“I think the most rewarding thing is just watching the boys say, ‘Oh, I can do this, I can do this better,’” AhMu said.

Marquez shared how SOAR prioritizes spiritual experiences. According to Marquez, each day ended with a devotional led by counselors, and one day they visited the Missionary Training Center and the Provo City Center temple grounds.

“Two girls said, ‘Gaby, I haven’t felt the Spirit this strong in a long time,’” Marquez said.

As Grace said, counselors spend the entire day with the youth at camp, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Grace recommended SOAR to any high school student who might join or any college student who wants to become a counselor. Although it was tiring, it was fun, she added.

“I love SOAR. I think it’s a really cool show,” Grace said.

Applications for next year’s camp counselor or camper positions can be found on the BYU MSS website.