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New confidence prompts Sebastopol teen to take on college

Jocelyne Santibañez, 18, a graduate of El Molino High School is part of the Summer Search program, Thursday, June 11, 2015. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)

JAMIE HANSEN, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Three years ago, Jocelyne Santibañez, as a first-generation American and incoming high school sophomore, would not have considered herself a leader.

But now, she says she very much feels like one. That’s after she overcame her fears of being in front of big crowds to be a rally commissioner at El Molino High School, traveled to Mexico to help a small village repair its soccer fields, and earned a scholarship to attend Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania in the fall. That step will make her the first in her family to attend a four-year college.

She attributes a lot of that personal growth to a program called Summer Search that she was chosen for in her sophomore year. The San Francisco-based program is meant to identify low-income teens with leadership potential and help them achieve goals like going to a four-year college while also inspiring them to make a difference in the world.

El Molino chooses teens “who have a special spark, who care about others, and who have leadership potential,” said recently retired teacher Lynn Stewart, who coordinated the program.

Santibañez, from Sebastopol, said she considered herself just an ordinary student when she was chosen for Summer Search.

But her teachers saw something special in the straight-A student, nominating her and making her one of just 40 El Molino students chosen for the program over the past 18 years.

“It’s obvious the spark in her, she just kind of glows,” Stewart said. “She had leadership ability, but she hadn’t really done too much with it.”

Stewart said she watched Santibañez gain great confidence over the next two years.

The 18-year-old said a couple of Summer Search-sponsored trips, including a multi-week backpacking excursion in Colorado and a month-and-a-half-long service trip to Mahas, Mexico, “got me out of my comfort zone and gave me all the skills I didn’t know were possible.”

She was particularly motivated by her time in Mexico, where she and a small crew of high-schoolers from around the country helped a 500-person village renovate its athletic fields. She was inspired by how the residents took ownership of the project and showed up to help out.

“I definitely took away how a community can come together to make things better,” she said. “It’s just amazing how little things can start a big change.”

She remains in touch with some of the villagers, she said.

Another aspect of getting out of her comfort zone included setting her sights on a four-year college.

She said she’s known since her sophomore year she wanted to go to college so she could get a well-paying job and help her parents pay their bills.

Currently, her mother and father work long hours, her mom as a house cleaner and her father as a handy man.

She’s headed to Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where she hopes to play soccer. What might have intimidated her just a few years ago is now mainly a source of anticipation.

She said, “I’m excited because it’s something new.”