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Dorchester, Mass. teen Shayna Morales Soto works with local children in Yalcobá, a Mayan village in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Shayna Morales Soto (center), of Dorchester, Mass., works with children in Yalcobá, a Mayan village in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

Here are two things I believe: Life begins at the end of your comfort zone; and there is no such thing as “normal.”

These ideas probably lurked within me for years as I grew up in the Dorchester section of Boston. Then, they came blasting to life on a journey with Summer Search Boston.

When I returned this fall to John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Boston, where I’m a high school senior, I was pretty sure no one would have summer vacation stories and photos like mine. In fact, I was certain. That’s because I spent the summer in Yalcobá, a Mayan village in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, helping install a cement floor in a building at the local cemetery so villagers could pray for deceased loved ones without tripping over rocks.

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Working with village residents, we also built and installed a locking gate to keep out vandals at night. It was a project we and the community came up with together, and carried out side-by-side.

“Being from a family of Puerto Rican descent, I figured I could use my fluent Spanish in Mexico. But – surprise! – I quickly found out that most of the villagers spoke mainly Mayan.”

It might sound like a very odd way to spend your summer break. But it’s pretty typical of the kinds of things other Summer Searchers did this past summer – and have done every summer for the past 20 years. Summer Search has been changing the lives of Greater Boston teens like me, closing the opportunity gap for low-income students by changing how we see ourselves. What they try to teach you is that you are as strong as you say you are. And you say you are a lot stronger once you realize what you can really do.

Being from a family of Puerto Rican descent, I figured I could use my fluent Spanish in Mexico. But – surprise! – I quickly found out that most of the villagers spoke mainly Mayan. That meant my summer would include learning to get by in a new language as well as working on the cemetery project and running daily camps to teach 35 children about caring for their own health and the environment – all while living thousands of miles from my family and friends.

At first, I felt out of place in the culture — I didn’t love the idea of taking “bucket showers” for six weeks. But I looked around and saw that this is how everyone there lives, and I got used to it. Again, one of my universal truths was concretely hammered home: There is no “normal” that applies to the whole world. “Normal” is different everywhere – and so the whole concept becomes irrelevant. We are all just different people trying to get through life, each in our own way.

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I have been privileged to get a different perspective on the world around me. The program identifies high potential/low opportunity high school sophomores and invests in a series of summer experiences, combined with intensive year-round mentoring resources, to support us through high school and college. My summer trip is coupled with focused, weekly mentoring up until I graduate from high school. Less intensive mentoring will continue through college graduation.

With the help of my Summer Search mentor, Martina, I intend to carry this perspective forward. Neither of my parents went to college, but I am looking at a bunch of schools beyond Massachusetts – again, to go beyond my Boston comfort zone. With Summer Search’s continued support through my college years, I will be the first in my family to graduate from college. Right now, I’m thinking of pursuing a degree in international affairs. I might go to law school, too.

My summer experience toughened me up and showed me what I am really capable of. I see a different person in the mirror these days. Once you start believing in yourself, anything and everything become possible.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Shayna Morales Soto is a high school senior at John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Boston.

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