Ketchikan High School senior Sarah Palaruan, in June and July, spent seven weeks at Princeton University with the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America college preparation program.
According to LEDA information, Palaruan's was the 15th cohort of LEDA scholars. Each year, high school juniors from under-resourced and diverse backgrounds are hosted by LEDA, formed to support and mentor young leaders as they prepare for college.
Each year, 100 high school students are chosen from around the United States to participate in the program.
Palaruan, during a recent interview at Kayhi, said she met students from India, Ghana, Ethiopia, Latin America and the Domincan Republic while in the program. All were American high school students who were immigrants or children of immigrants.
Palaruan moved to Ketchikan with her mother, Rolina Palaruan, from the Philippines in 2012. As a high-achieving student from a lower income, single-parent family, Sarah Palaruan perfectly fit the LEDA criteria.
Palaruan said she first heard of the LEDA program from her friend, fellow Kayhi student and 2018 LEDA program alumni Franklyn Correa.
“It's like the program where there's people who are going to help you get into college, and it's a leadership program also, so it will enhance your leadership skills,” she said Correa told her.
Palaruan was the only LEDA participant from Alaska this year, she said.
When asked if any aspects of her experience surprised her, Palaruan said, “everything was surprising.”
She explained that the only similar experience she'd had was as a participant of a Rotary International four-day Rotary Youth Leadership Awards program, along with two other Kayhi students.
Palaruan said the most significant impact the LEDA program had her was the core values that were taught: Community, integrity, excellence and compassion.
“All seven weeks, we followed those core values,” she said.
Following those values closely during that time allowed students to create a community that was very close-knit, as each person learned their strengths and supported each other as they also learned their weaknesses.
She said another very valuable experience at the program were the many discussion-based classes held.
“When I went there, we had classes like “Aspects of Leadership” that were mostly discussion-based,” she said, “and even though there were facilitators, it was mostly the students giving their input, so I learned more from the students that from the facilitators.”
She added that, “there, I really saw the benefit of being in a discussion-based class, because everyone has their own opinion and input, because they're from different schools” with widely varying backgrounds, cultures and viewpoints.
All 100 students live in the Forbes College dormitory, which features a dining hall and lounge, as well as mentors for each hall who lead weekly community meetings. That arrangement, Palaruan said, helped participants become close.
Each day began with classes at 8 a.m., she said, with morning meetings as a whole group, or in smaller college guidance classes.
Each student studies college writing and leadership skills each day, and are given homework each night. Students also attend daily individual meetings with guidance counselors or instructors.
Evening homework consisted of readings, college research and essay writing.
Before students arrived on campus, they were required to write two essays in response to formal essays as a starting point. At the end of the program, students can “compare either your progress or what you learned” as they revisit the essays, Palaruan said.
The volume of writing required at the LEDA program was beneficial for her, Palaruan said, as she'd previously been anxious when assigned longer writing pieces.
“By taking that class, they take that fear away from you — 'Oh, I have to write four pages,'” she said. “It's just how many words you need to get your point across.”
Students are required to turn in a portfolio of work they've completed at the end of the program.
At the core of the LEDA program is college preparation. Palaruan said mentors spent much time with attendees discussing “fit factors” of different institutions, such as the size or location of a school, the college environment and the ameneties offered.
“With these fit factors, you start trying to find the colleges that have those,” she said. “It's a process.”
She said students are required to make a balanced list of two or three “reach” schools, five to seven “challenge” schools and several more “likely” schools. Mentors teach students the questions they should be asking and the aspects they should be considering as they make their choices.
Before she'd attended LEDA, Palaruan said, she hadn't even started researching colleges.
Palaruan said she is focused on earning a bachelor's degree in nursing, and she had thought that the “big name” colleges were not an option for her unless she was pursuing a degree such as a medical doctor.
Now, she has the University of Pennsylvania, Emory University and Case Western Reserve University on her list.
Palaruan said she first was considering pursuing an engineering degree when she started high school, because she was good at math and science. Then, in a Kayhi class, she read the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” a book by Tracy Kidder about a doctor, Paul Farmer, who specialized in infectious diseases and created change around the world.
“It definitely inspires a lot of students,” Palaruan said. Her reaction was to ask herself, “Why am I not selfless like this?”
When she travelled with her mother to visit relatives in the Philippines in December of 2018, she said she was struck by how many family members were nurses.
“They all have this intention of, 'I want to help people,' and I thought — 'I want to help people. I want to be selfless, and in this way I can do it,'” she said.
This year, at Kayhi, she is taking a Certified Nursing Assistant class and a Medical Terminology course in preparation for her goals.
Her older sister, Georgina Gugulan, who works as a CNA at PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center, also is an inspiration to her.
“I looked up to her, and she inspired me,” Palaruan said. She explained that Gugulan left a college accounting program in the Philippines midway to come to Ketchikan. When she arrived, she had to wait a year to start working as her documents were processed, then worked at a fast-food job and at Walmart while earning her CNA credential.
“To have somebody like that in your life, and to also have my mom, who raised us, it's really inspiring,” Palaruan said.
Their mother, Rolina Palaruan, works as a housekeeper at KMC as well as at the Pioneer Home.
Sarah Palaruan said that there definitely is a cultural aspect to her hard work and high standards, as part of a Filipino family.
“For us, it's because we're from a different country where there's poverty, and the way you get a job is if you graduate college,” she said, adding that everyone must strive to work hard and earn top grades.
“We kind of brought that mentality here,” she said, “that you have to do well in school for you to get a good life.”
The biggest challenge Palaruan said she and other participants faced while in the LEDA program was “imposter syndrome.”
One night, at a whole-group meeting that students tagged “cry night,” Palaruan said instructors asked students to step forward if they thought they had been mistakenly chosen for the program.
“A lot of them stepped forward,” Palaruan said, “and I was like, 'Oh, I thought I was the only one,' because you are surrounded by brilliant, brilliant students from different backgrounds and from different states and you kind of feel intimidated in a way.”
Having lived in a small island town for so many years, Palaruan said the LEDA program was valuable in expanding her knowledge of the world.
Each LEDA student, as they enter their senior year of school after the program's end, is required to create a “community impact project.” Palaruan said hers will be to create a “college readiness committee” to help freshman and sophomores to start planning for college
“Sharing that information and exposing them to what they need to be doing and the questions that they should be asking already” will be central to her committee's mission, she said.
The committee's tools to acomplish its goals will include regular meetings, creating informational posters and distributing a survey to assess student needs.
LEDA mentors continue to work with participants through their senior year of high school, to review and edit college application materials and offer support and advice.
Palaruan said she'd tell students pondering whether to apply for the LEDA program that “even though it's a lot of work, it's for your own benefit and also it's not just work, it's about the help that you're getting and the opportunity you're getting from participating in this program — and it's nothing like you can get anywhere. They're focused on you and giving you the best opportunities they can give you.”
She added that, “it's not just about college, it's what you want to do and who you are and staying true to yourself and what your passions are and what you want to learn; and they tell you that too.”