SAIL program draws visit from NYT columnist and author

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof  and his wife, banker and author Sheryl WuDunn, dropped in for a recent session of the UO's Summer Academy To Inspire Learning (SAIL) and shared stories about their work and the paths that led them to it.

SAIL is a pipeline program at the UO that aims to make higher education a realistic goal for disadvantaged middle school and high school students.

Kristof grew up on a sheep and cherry farm near Yamhill before graduating from Harvard College and then studying law as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University's Magdalen College. WuDunn grew up in New York, graduated from Cornell University and then earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and a master's degree in public administration from Princeton University.

One of the SAIL students asked WuDunn about the college experience.

"You get to meet people from places you've never even heard of," she said.

Kristof said he progressed from working at his high school newspaper – and doing part-time work at the same time for the three-issues-per-week McMinnville NewsRegister – to an internship at the Salem Statesman Journal, a reporting job at the Washington Post and then a six-month trial period at the New York Times.

"I've been there ever since," said Kristof, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes.

He and WuDunn have written extensively about human rights abuses around the world and won a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on China's Tiananmen Square protests.

During their visit with the SAIL students at the UO, the couple discussed the sex trafficking in India, Cambodia and elsewhere in Asia that they have written about extensively.

Kristof described visiting young girls who had been kidnapped and sold to the owners of brothels in Cambodia, and of "buying" two of the girls – a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old – and returning them to their villages. One of the girls, who had been forced to work as a prostitute for only a couple months, gratefully reconnected with her family and village; the other, who had been kidnapped five years earlier and had become addicted to methamphetamine in the brothel, returned to prostitution.

"The traffickers tend to go where people are voiceless," Kristof said, describing the typical targets as young, poor and from remote villages.

In describing his path to college and his eventual profession in journalism, Kristof said he emphasized his rural roots when he applied for admission to Harvard.

"One thing that caught their eye, (is that) Harvard didn't have a lot of farm kids from Oregon," he said. "It was a different environment, but also such an amazing experience."

Kristof and WuDunn were at the UO last week to talk with professors Ulrich Mayr and Bill Harbaugh about their research into neuroscience and altruism. Harbaugh and Bruce Blonigen - both economics professors at the UO - launched SAIL in 2005 as a one-week day camp for 15 Springfield Middle School students who would be entering 9th grade that fall. The program now has eight faculty-led summer camps with 150 students and involves hundreds of volunteer hours from faculty and staff.

The program's goal is to increase the number of low-income students going on to higher education. It offers talks, demonstrations and interactive experiences with UO faculty; a sampling of campus and college life; and instruction on the admission and financial aid processes.

Students progress through a new camp each summer until their senior year, covering a variety of academic topics. The goal is for students to finish four years of SAIL with the belief that applying for college is the natural and normal next step, and with the tools to get admitted and succeed.

Students are recruited for SAIL on the basic criteria that they are smart and belong in college, but are unlikely to continue their education after high school because of family income. Most come from families with no history of college education, and many are from English-as-a second-language households.

- by Joe Mosley, UO Office of Strategic Communication