Shawn James, Jr., a senior at Boys Latin Charter School in Philadelphia, was raised by a single mother of three. “We moved more than 20 times throughout my life,” Shawn said. “We were never financially stable enough to stay in one place for long, and I spent the second grade in a shelter with my mom and baby brother.”
Shawn’s mom worked past 11 p.m. most nights, and Shawn had to watch his little brother. “I was basically a caretaker at the age of 10,” he said. “I hardly ever saw my mom awake, and I didn’t have the luxury of being a child.”
When Shawn became aware of Summer Search during his sophomore year at Boys Latin, he was so focused on helping out at home and supporting the people around him that he was forgetting to take care of himself. “The interviewer made a big deal about my huge number of absences and tardies,” Shawn said. “And it didn’t matter to her that I had a good reason for missing school. She simply asked, ‘Who is taking care of you?’ And that question blew me away, because I knew I didn’t have an answer. I was too busy taking care of everyone else and never thinking about myself.”
Despite that early insight, Shawn was initially cautious about Summer Search. “The mentoring felt like a rollercoaster,” he said. “I stayed distant from my mentor because I had never opened up to anyone outside of my family. I was afraid to talk about the things that were going on because I didn’t want to be judged.” Eventually, Shawn realized that his mentors were there to listen, take in what he said, and challenge him to think about his motivations and choices. “Summer Search told me they would only invest in a student that was willing to invest in himself,” Shawn said. “And once the question was out there, it was all I could think about. Was I ready to invest in myself?”
For his first trip, Shawn went on an Outward Bound adventure in the wilderness, in Maine, sailing and canoeing for three weeks. “I didn’t even know how to swim, and the thought of bugs made my skin itch,” Shawn said. “My mom even questioned if I could handle all of the hard work.” But Shawn had “a wonderful experience” with Outward Bound, and it taught him “how to appreciate the simpler things in life.”
After his junior year, Shawn chose to study English and Theatre, and take a swim class at Northfield Mount Hermon, a private boarding school in Massachusetts. “It was incredible to be around kids from all different ethnic groups and walks of life,” Shawn said. “There were kids from 22 states and 39 different countries.” His time at NMH taught Shawn important time-management skills, and he got to experience the rigor of a college-paced class first hand.
In the fall, Shawn will become the first in his family to attend college, as he’ll become a freshman at Clarion University in western Pennsylvania.
Shawn is excited for college, but what really gets him excited is his paid summer Internship with TED.com. TED gives millions of people around the globe direct access to the world's thought leaders by providing short talks. “I wasn’t familiar with TED.com until Summer Search introduced me,” Shawn said. “For school, I was required to secure an unpaid internship and give 100 hours of service, and I chose to intern at Summer Search, the place that had invested so much in me. The Summer Search staff kept complimenting me on my knowledge, initiative and work ethic, and then they recommended me for the internship at TED, which is really the internship of a lifetime. It will give me great experience in the communications field and expand my knowledge of media.”
The wilderness, boarding school, and the opportunity to intern this summer are all experiences Shawn would not have had without Summer Search. As Shawn said, “Summer Search changed my life, because they gave me new experiences and opportunities, and they taught me the value of investing in myself.”
And in the spirit of giving back, Shawn wants to give back to Summer Search, and encourage others to do so as well. “Support for Summer Search doesn’t just go towards a plane ticket or hiking boots,” he said. “It goes to a teenager who deserves the opportunity to change the course of their future, and in turn change the community around them.”