YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- Liliana Zapata is a 16-year-old junior at Dos Palos High. She is also a river, in the metaphorical sense.
And not just any river. Zapata is the Merced. The river that flows through Yosemite Valley inspired these words to flow through her:
I am the Merced River
Easy going and courageous
Always looking forward
Never looking back
Pushing myself to my potential
Flowing gracefully to my next journey ...
Zapata wrote this poem while participating in Adventure Risk Challenge, an innovative immersion program that combines literacy, leadership skills and the outdoors.
For 40 rigorous days, Zapata and her 11 high school-aged ARC classmates (who dubbed themselves the "Hardcore Mosquitoes") faced and overcame challenges that must've seemed as daunting as El Capitan.
None had ever been camping. Yet as soon as they arrived here, they embarked on an eight-day, seven-night backpacking trip that culminated in an ascent of Cloud's Rest. From three instructors, they learned how to use a map and compass. How to perform basic first aid. How to set up a campsite. How to leave no trace of their passing.
All come from families where Spanish or another foreign language is spoken at home. Yet they're subjected to rigorous academic instruction in English that includes grammar lessons, group reading and journaling. They must interview a stranger, write a poem and recite it in public, and produce a thoughtful "transformative essay" about their experience.
Along the way, they're introduced to nature in a spectacular setting, along with the concept of conservation. They go kayaking on Bass Lake, rock climbing on Fresno Dome and leaping off telephone poles on a supervised ropes course. Perhaps most daunting, there's the 24 hours that each participant spends in the forest alone.
"The whole experience just opened up my mind," said 17-year-old Jenny Hernandez of Dos Palos. "If I can go backpacking and jump off a 25-foot telephone pole, why can't I do anything else I put my mind to?"
That's what 2009 ARC graduate Ricardo Amancio discovered. The 18-year-old from Dos Palos is an incoming freshman at California State University, Stanislaus, and he'll be going with a handful of college credits thanks to advanced-placement courses he completed as a high school senior.
"Until ARC, I didn't think I was a smart kid. There's no way I would've signed up for those classes," Amancio said. "Before I'd always put myself down. ARC pushed me out there."
Amancio talked on a typically gorgeous evening in late July while standing near the lighted stage of the Lower Pines campfire circle in Yosemite Valley. Soon, ARC students will be reciting their poems. Among them is Amancio's 15-year-old cousin, Charly Mijares. Amancio and other ARC graduates have returned to offer support.
There are only about 50 people in the audience, including Yosemite Superintendent Don Neubacher. To these nervous kids, it might as well be 5,000.
"There's a lot of resistance to writing a poem," said Alyssa Martin, ARC's English instructor. "They say they don't know how or don't know enough words in English. Then the idea of reading it in public is beyond comprehension."
After some opening remarks by ARC director Jennifer Gurecki, each student heads to the stage. The poems, thick with metaphorical imagery, touch on themes as varied as their authors.
Some express the surge of confidence that comes from accomplishing something beyond your assumed limits. Some harken to former lives in Mexico or China, family separations and parental sacrifices. Others depict being victims of racism or the simple hardships of farm labor.
The relief on a student's face is palatable as each leaves the stage to warm applause.
"It's pretty intense because I actually put my emotions into it," Mijares said. "My real emotions."
ARC was founded in 2004 by Katie Zanto, a professor at Sierra Nevada College near Lake Tahoe, as her master's thesis. Besides the program in Yosemite, which is in its third year and operates under the umbrella of the University of California at Merced Yosemite Field Station, there's another in Lake Tahoe that is affiliated with UC Berkeley.
The 40-day summer course is supplemented and reinforced year-round. There are monthly retreats, and Yosemite program director Sarah Cupery Ottley and Martin make regular school visits for tutoring and writing workshops.
ARC's Merced/Yosemite program is funded by the Stewardship Council, Yosemite Conservancy and Merced County Office of Education. All participants are on scholarship, though families are given the opportunity to contribute. The course costs about $5,000 per student.
While ARC was designed for English-language learners, that is no longer a requirement.
"We try to find youth that will benefit most from what we offer," said Gurecki, who oversees both the Yosemite and Lake Tahoe programs. "The kids don't have to be English-language learners. But if you look at the communities we serve, that's generally the way it works out."
The Yosemite program is designed to serve primarily Merced County youth. Gurecki is open to the idea of expanding into other national parks, including Sequoia & Kings Canyon, but needs additional funding.
Before being accepted into the 40-day program, students must sign contracts pledging that they will speak English at all times; refrain from any abusive behavior; and not form any exclusive relationships. Doing so ensures an inclusive, encouraging atmosphere, Gurecki said.
Now comes the key question: Is ARC making a difference? There are a few statistics, contained in a program fact sheet, that seem to indicate it does.
t ARC participants have a 92% passing rate on the Language Arts Section of the California High School Exit Exam. That's compared to a 42% statewide rate for English-language learners and 72% for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
t ARC participants enroll in college at a 77% clip. That's compared to 36% nationwide for Hispanic high school graduates and 46% for whites.
"It's an intense program, but for the kids that go through it, I've noticed a boost in their self-esteem," said Heather Ruiz, assistant principal at Dos Palos High. "It's been a very positive thing for us."
Yosemite's ARC group spends about half the 40 days in the backcountry and half at a Wawona Elementary School base camp. They go on three backpacking trips, the last of which is a four-night journey around Ostrander Lake that involves cross-country travel.
The trip is led entirely by students, with instructors tagging along for safety. On the final evening, the group decides to wake up at 4:30 the next morning to make extra time for a climb of Buena Vista Peak.
So what if it adds two miles to what's already a nine-mile hike?
"It was spectacular," Mijares said of the summit view. "We could see everything from up there."