Multicultural students participate as SOAR counselors

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Multicultural BYU students participate as camp counselors in SOAR. Counselors work in three sessions throughout the summer, according to counselor Gabriela Marquez. (Courtesy of Anika Pasa)

SOAR, an annual camp for multicultural high school seniors, recently finished the first session of the summer on the BYU campus. Camp counselors shared how the experience uplifted not only the high schoolers, but themselves as well.

SOAR stands for Summer of Academic Refinement, according to counselor Gabriela Marquez. 

“SOAR is a BYU college preparation and scholarship program that values and provides opportunities to domestic students. … It aims to expose students to (the) BYU campus, faculty and advisers to guide them through the admissions application in order to become competitive BYU applicants,” the Multicultural Students Services website said about the program

SOAR holds three sessions every summer. The next two sessions of the 2024 year will take place July 8-12 and July 15-19.

Gabriela Marquez, a SOAR counselor, is a Guatemalan from Massachusetts. As a SOAR participant in 2016, she received much from her experience, she said.

The female SOAR counselors of 2024 wear cultural attire, representing their ethnic backgrounds. Kealohilani Grace, second on the right, shared that the counselors 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 so long I wanted to be like everyone else — blonde, blue eyes, tall,” Marquez said about her time at home before attending SOAR.

During her camp experience, she developed a love for her culture. Years later, she saw a similar change in the girls she counseled at the camp, Marquez said.

“Because of SOAR, I even decided to go to BYU,” Marquez said.

Previous to her SOAR experience, Marquez was not considering BYU as an option for university. However, she remembers walking on the campus during her week in the program and felt she needed to be at BYU.

“I felt a really special spirit and I’ve definitely enjoyed my time at BYU, for sure,” she said.

Counselor Olson AhMu said he felt a desire to participate in SOAR this summer to give back after all it has given him.

“The scholarship I’ve received from it has helped me a lot as I’ve gone through school, and I thought it was a great way that I could pay back,” AhMu said of serving as a SOAR counselor.

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

Additionally, AhMu hoped to be of help to young individuals who might be struggling with their identity, their time in high school or connecting with their culture, he said.

Counselor Kealohilani Grace chose to participate in SOAR for two reasons.

“I think a large part of it was just, one, to meet new people who come from different cultures,” Grace said. The second reason she shared was to gain experience working with teenagers, because she is a human development major.

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

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

“I’m still early on in my college experience so it’s really nice for me because it also opens opportunities for me and gives me ideas of what I want to explore or do in the future here at BYU,” she said.

Grace added how rewarding the first session was.

“The whole week you’re not focused on yourself, you’re focused on the students you have. All your energy and time is spent on helping them have a good experience,” Grace said.

She said she felt her time as a camp counselor was a missionary experience, as did AhMu.

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

He explained how impactful it was to see the boys in his group feel a change from their time at SOAR.

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

Marquez shared how SOAR makes spiritual experiences a priority. According to Marquez, every day would end in a devotional led by the 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 that strong in a really long time,’” Marquez said.

The counselors spend all day with the youth at camp, Grace shared, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Grace recommended participating in SOAR for any high schooler who can join or any college student who would like to be a counselor. Though it was tiring, it was fun, she added.

“I love SOAR. I think it’s a super awesome program,” Grace said. 

Applications to apply as a counselor or participant for next year’s camps can be found on the BYU MSS website.

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