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8 a.m. Monday morning. Atlanta in the summer. Seventh graders stand on top of the tables
yelling, “Math is Language!” at the top of their lungs. How else to engage students with the material
at hand? This is not a solution that most teachers in public schools would apply. But this was not
public school. This was Summerbridge, and for Vinita Ahuja, the strategy worked.
Of that 1998 class of forty students, thirty-five students stayed involved in the Summerbridge
program through their senior year in high school. Thirty-four went to college and one joined the
army. These numbers are a testament, not only to the power of the program and to creative
teaching techniques implemented by high school-age teachers like Vinita, but also to a strong
alumni component that followed the students through high school.
“Couldn’t Get Rid of the Vibe”
Vinita walked down the stairs to the Summerbridge office at the beginning of the summer of 1998
ready to start her work as an office assistant. When she entered the office, she discovered her
name on the list of math teachers written on the board. Her director had hoped to beat her to the
office to break the news gently. Despite an unplanned introduction to teaching, Vinita “got
hooked.” She came back in 1999 and again in 2001
When Vinita began working at Summerbridge she dressed in browns and blacks. In her words, she
“didn’t want to call attention to [her]self.” After a couple of summers teaching in the program,
then-Atlanta director Keno Sadler pointed out the presence of a few more oranges and yellows in
her wardrobe. Summerbridge “helped me come out of my own shell,” she claims. Prior to her time
in Summerbridge, Vinita would not have ventured up on top of a table to yell or sing. But, she
grew as an individual during those summers; her confidence skyrocketed and she became
comfortable leading activities in front of a crowd of people.
“You really have to get involved with kids to make a
Summerbridge Atlanta alum Barry Petersen describes her by saying, “Vinita gives, gives, and
gives. I think she has made a career out of it.” All signs point that direction. Her career
aspirations have evolved over time, beginning in high school with molecular biology. During
college she leaned towards international development work, but by the end of college she had
shifted the target of her ambitions. With so much need in the United States, she decided to stay
local. Following college she accepted a development and communication job with Community
Family Life Services in Washington, DC, which works with homeless families.
The children with whom Community Family Life Services worked were often functionally
disabled, starting from far behind other children with stable homes and intact families. One fifteen-
year-old she met could not add two five dollar bills together. They moved around constantly or
lived in transitional housing. They came from families triply diagnosed with HIV, mental health
disorders, and substance abuse. Their paths to their future had few resources and few
opportunities, despite the dreams they carried. The understanding of the complexities of the lives
of homeless children Vinita gained in D.C. motivated her to turn to graduate school for further
At Harvard University, Vinita’s focus is on non-profit education programs. The non-profit
organization she plans to establish has roots in Summerbridge, but would focus on homeless
children; those with the least stability and the least opportunity in their lives. Her organization
would provide internship opportunities and youth advocacy training, as well as support to enter
college and career training programs. Barry’s assessment seems accurate; Vinita is poised to
continue giving by working with youth in dire need to help break the cycle of poverty in which
Advice for the Young and Restless
When asked about advice for alumni in a similar career track, Vinita sends a clear message. “The
biggest challenge I face is that I haven’t worked directly with students outside of Summerbridge.”
She suggests getting more experience out of college before entering a master’s program. Further,
she warns, “Don’t make a hasty decision. Take the time to explore your options.” Another benefit
of taking your time is to “explore funding options and options for continued education.” For
instance, some business schools and education schools have partnership agreements that provide
joint degrees and financial assistance.
A final piece of advice rests on her appreciation for the “other” perspective. At Harvard she has
cross-registered in classes at the business and public policy graduate schools in order to expose
herself to viewpoints and to acquire tools she might not find at the education school. While she
does not consider herself a “business person” she can see the value and application of those tools
in her future.
Vinita has a two-part vision for SBAN. First, she hopes SBAN can provide an array of services to
Summerbridge students after their eighth grade year. In her experience, access to support services
following their years of attendance in the Summerbridge program has been instrumental to many
alumni defining their next steps in education, career, and life. The second facet she explains by
saying, “We’re a bunch of motivated individuals that have diverse talents and experiences.” She
believes that when SB alumni get together in a room to “pool our social capital, collective
resources, and knowledge” we have the potential to make real change and create real movement.
Her vision depends on linking the needs of recent alumni and the resources of more established
alumni in order to establish a community that supports its own and makes an external impact.