Next Doors: Step by Step

Tracy Baynes’ original education was in oceanography. So how did she end up starting an education nonprofit in Arizona? 

Baynes came to Arizona to work at BioSphere 2 a couple of decades ago and was moonlighting doing semester-at-sea programs for students, as well as instructing for the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS, for short. Her story is an example of how sometimes, a new path that you weren’t anticipating presents.

Baynes loved the work with NOLS and other programs she was involved with that allowed youth to not just experience the outdoors but to experience it in challenging ways that helped develop their character. These programs would do wonders for increasing the students’ confidence and preparing them for real-world challenges while broadening their horizons.

But she noticed something missing from the work.

“I found that, gosh, I’m only seeing a subset of students, and typically that subset is wealthy and awfully white,” she said. “I started thinking, ‘Where is everybody else?’ And then, I got into looking at educational statistics and saw this huge educational achievement gap between low-income and high-income kids. You know when you see those statistics that it’s not about ability alone.” 

That’s when the light bulb went off. She’d seen what the transformational programs she had led through NOLS could do to help students grow. What if those programs were available to Arizona kids from lower-income environments? How could those students benefit from the kind of confidence these programs create?

Baynes spent a year researching how she could apply these programs to help students increase their confidence and then do something much more specific — make their way to college. She focused on first-generation college students with the goal of helping them achieve the skills they need for the future. 

That’s how her nonprofit STEP — an acronym for Student Expedition Program — started in 2005. Baynes was the founder and has been president & CEO ever since, leading an organization whose goal is to not only expose students to new experiences, but to channel their energy into pursuing a college degree. 

Baynes said she realized early on that she didn’t need to reinvent the wheel when it came to the expeditions themselves — NOLS operated expeditions in an ideal way with excellent results. When it came time to pick where Arizona students would spend their time, Baynes decided Alaska was an ideal location — because it’s an almost opposite experience from Arizona. 

“If I could put them on the moon, I would have, but how could I get them to a place that is as foreign as possible from Arizona?” she said. “We picked Alaska, for sea kayaking.” 

Since then, STEP has sent more than 400 students to Alaska for these expeditions to help students experience something they might never otherwise encounter. 

As STEP grew, they settled into a model where they would send three cohorts of 12 on expeditions each summer, creating a transformative impact on the students’ confidence. But again, Baynes noticed another piece of the puzzle that could be added. 

She realized that the students she was meeting were not getting the information they needed to apply to college, so she decided to make that part of the mission.  

“I said, ‘I have gotta start working with these students in a larger capacity,’” she said. “I’ve gotta jump in the deep end of the pool and start doing a multi-year college prep program.”

Today, the mission of STEP is to educate and empower low-income Arizona students to enroll in and become first-generation graduates from college. The goal is to “provide the focused guidance needed to successfully prepare for and apply to top colleges, secure scholarships to make college affordable, navigate the transition from high school to college and advocate for themselves in college and life.”

As a result, not every student involved with STEP goes on an expedition — several hundred students each year are involved in STEP’s college efforts but do not travel — and the ones who do receive a lot more than a trip. The 36 high school seniors from Arizona schools venture into the Alaskan wilderness for three weeks and are dropped off on a beach with kayaks to find their way, without their phones and other comforts of home. They learn how to read maps and navigate rivers by working together and trusting their instincts and hard work.

“It’s different — it’s cold, it’s wet and it challenges them in different ways,” said Lynn Petzold, senior account manager and senior faculty at NOLS, who helps lead the STEP trips to Alaska. “The essence of the expedition is students being exposed to something different, struggling through it a little bit, having successes, having failures, leaning on each other for support and developing friendships and community. The experience of going on something very unknown becomes a platform for them to reflect on.”

Letura Kpea

Letura Kpea is one of those students. The 17 year old is currently a senior at Buckeye High School who has dreamed since middle school of attending college. She is waiting to hear back from Vanderbilt University to see if she has gained early admission. 

Kpea said that STEP’s help has been invaluable in her application process, but the expedition is something she will remember for years to come. 

“Honestly, when they say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it truly was,” she said. “Initially, the trip is supposed to prepare you for your transition to college, and that was my goal, to show my parents that I would be able to thrive independently and go to college and do fine. I can say after the expedition that I am truly ready to do that.”

The adventure taught more than navigation skills. “They taught us some of the basics that you’ll need to learn in college, like cooking, how to room with others and how to get along with the people around you so that you are successful,” Kpea said. 

Baynes said one goal she tells students STEP has is to not have the students need the organization in the long run.

“We are launching students to be the leaders and the voices of tomorrow, and we’re also creating generational change in families and communities,” she said. “With a little bit of investment right now; we’re not making it so they are dependent on us, we’re making it so they can take it from there. And the ripple effects of that are infinite.”

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About Tom Evans

Tom Evans is Contributing Editor of Frontdoors Media and the Senior Vice President at Lumen Strategies
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