May 22, 2019

From grit to growth: 4 essentials to ‘pack’ for a life-changing summer vacation

Summer Search—a nonprofit that offers transformative experiences to high school students from low-income communities—on preparing for life's greatest journeys.

Summer Search provides students with mentorship and challenging experiential opportunities. The nonprofit was a Renewal Award winner in 2018. Photos by Summer Search

Summer is just around the corner. For many, this means vacations, barbecues, and relaxing days at the beach. Some young people will spend part of their summers on challenging, learning-filled, transformative experiences.

Summer Search is a national youth development organization that offers professional mentoring and transformative opportunities to high school students from low-income communities. We support them to achieve their full potential—in post-secondary education and into their adult lives. These young people from Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay Area are often the first in their families to go to college.

For the past 29 years, Summer Search has sent thousands of high school students on transformative summer programs around the country and the world with organizations like Deer Hill Expeditions, Global Glimpse, and Outward Bound. These experiences provide young people with the opportunity to see a new part of the world. In turn, it changes how they see the world and themselves.

So, what does one pack for such an impactful trip? Students receive an extensive packing list, but beyond backpacks, boots, or a passport, it is the “invisible” items that are critical to getting the most from the experience. Namely, social-emotional skills and mindsets that will enable students to grow and learn. When they return, it will help them navigate challenges in school, work, and life.

We asked Summer Search students to share their advice on the essential invisible items to pack for a transformative summer experience:

A Growth Mindset

“I am most proud of myself for embracing challenges and pushing myself to face my fears—and taking that leap of faith, knowing the uncertainty of what follows.” — Kyle

From rock-climbing to hiking to serving communities to performing, young people will try things they have never done before in places they have never been. They’ll meet new people, eat food they’re not used to, and may learn about different cultures. These experiences will test young people by pushing them beyond their comfort zone.

Students have a chance to participate in a challenging wilderness experience or travel abroad to learn about different cultures.

In such foreign situations, it is crucial that young people recognize and “own” their fears, so they remain open to growing from these new experiences. This will help young people build confidence to move forward in the face of uncertainty. These skills will serve them well in their futures.


“My summer experience made me realize that if I push myself enough, I can do things I never imagined possible.” — Marilyn

These experiences are going to be hard. Whether it’s hiking 10 miles uphill with 60 pounds on their backs in the Colorado Rockies or shoveling all day to build a community center in Costa Rica, participants will be challenged physically and mentally.

"Don’t be afraid to take chances, allow yourself to be vulnerable, and learn from your peers. It will be a life-changing experience." — Summer Search student

Psychologist and popular science author Angela Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance.” Students will get practice managing stress and staying motivated through challenges. They’ll strengthen their determination to power through long days, and build their resilience to get back up and do it again the next.

By then end of the trip, young people will achieve goals that they once thought were unthinkable.


“Don’t be afraid to take chances, allow yourself to be vulnerable, and learn from your peers. It will be a life-changing experience.” — Summer Search Alumna

It’s not just physical challenges that young people will face, but mental and emotional challenges as well. Participants might feel homesick, frustrated, fatigued, or overwhelmed.

Research professor Brené Brown explains vulnerability as, “having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.” At Summer Search, we call this skill “being real” with yourself and with others. It takes practice.

Summer Search partners with Deer Hill Expeditions, a wilderness adventure camp based in Colorado.

Some summer programs ask young people to routinely reflect with their peers on their feelings about the experience. Ideally, this activity will build the practice of reaching out for help, expressing empathy, and developing supportive relationships.


“I was able to gain a greater appreciation toward my own life and things around me while also finally letting go of things that were unnecessarily holding me back, and I think that’s the greatest gift I could have ever received.” — Kai

A popular concept these days, “mindfulness” means maintaining an awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. It also means focusing on the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.

After their trips, Summer Searchers often reflect on the importance of “being present” and “living in the moment.” Staying present and embracing the experience will give participants a broadened view of the world, and most importantly, themselves.

We hope that young people whose summer plans include a transformative experience remember to pack a growth mindset, bring their grit and vulnerability, and maintain a mindful attitude. Doing so will help them build social and emotional skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

“My summer experience toughened me up and showed me what I am really capable of. I see a different person in the mirror these days. Once you start believing in yourself, anything and everything become possible.” — Shayna

Summer Search CEO

Dr. Marc Spencer

Summer Search

Dr. Marc Spencer is the president and CEO of Summer Search. He has devoted his career to organizations that promote educational and economic opportunities to young people and communities. Marc’s leadership is defined by a commitment to social justice and equity, paired with an entrepreneurial spirit and drive. Marc joined Summer Search as Chief Executive Officer and Board President in 2017. He is leading the organization’s growth and change under a bold and visionary strategic direction.

Prior to Summer Search, Marc served as Chief Executive Officer of Juma Ventures, a national organization that strives to break the cycle of poverty by paving the way to work, education, and financial capability for youth. Marc’s achievements include development of a San Francisco African American independent school, the design and directorship of the nation’s first Upward Bound Visual and Performing Arts program, the creation of, a national matched college savings platform for students, and the creation of YouthMade, a manufacturing internship program. He has been an adviser for the Aspen Institute and served on the boards of the National Youth Employment Coalition, Social Enterprise Alliance, Evergreen Lodge, City of San Francisco Youth Council, Oakland Workforce Investment Board, and the Museum of the African Diaspora. He holds an Ed.D. and an MA in Education from USF, and a BA in Anthropology from UCLA.
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