West Coast Breakthrough
Student & Teacher
East Coast Director
Joel & Lynn waiting for student buses
to arrive circa 1992
“Everything was always a stretch assignment with Breakthrough…it stretches you beyond what you think you can achieve and with the right support you become what you couldn’t have imagined yourself to be!”
Joel Vargas’ parents put education first and dreamed of him attending Harvard one day! Growing up in a working-class Bay Area neighborhood with a fair share of concentrated poverty meant that Joel’s middle school was a tough environment for learning. Joel liked school because he did well, but it was not a very rigorous academic environment and he never had to try very hard. At the time, Joel didn’t realize he should be learning a lot more to achieve his dream of going to college.
One day, Lois Loofburrow, the founder and Director of Summerbridge (now Breakthrough) came to Joel’s classroom and promoted a summer program with academic extras and some fun stuff too. Talk of school in the summer made Joel tune out the idea almost immediately. But Mrs. Lawrence, Joel’s math teacher, followed up with his parents and Lois to recommend that Joel pursue Summerbridge. It took this advocacy to nudge Joel into Summerbridge; he did it because he wanted to make Mrs. Lawrence proud. Many Breakthrough students have a “Mrs. Lawrence” to thank for encouraging them to take that first step on their path to college.
Walking into San Francisco's prestigious, private University High School (UHS) on his first day of Summerbridge was enlightening and a far cry from Joel’s Potrero Hill Middle School! Joel was proud to be one of many bright, motivated students from across San Francisco in Summerbridge’s second class of students. However, he quickly realized how far behind he was. The inequity was stark because of his schooling, his race, his neighborhood, and his family income. Joel had a lot of catching up to do! The program was truly transformative. It turned out that summer was the fun stuff, and the real work happened during the after-school program where he worked with UHS students on how to write effectively and other things he should have already known.
An opportunity to attend UHS on scholarship turned out to be another kick in the pants. UHS was truly a different world. The social and academic divide was palpable, but after a rough start, Joel went on to thrive as student body president. Despite having great guidance counselors during the college process, UHS was not versed in working with candidates with high financial need. Unlike his friends, Joel was unable to head East for school because he did not receive the necessary financial support. After a year at San Francisco State, which he wouldn’t change for anything, Joel transferred to Boston University, sight unseen, for their journalism program. Although he had to overcome some financial hurdles, academics were never a problem thanks to his educational foundation from Summerbridge and UHS.
Around the time of Joel’s college graduation, Summerbridge was expanding nationally and Lois suggested he reach out to Manchester Director Lynn Sorensen whom Joel knew from Summerbridge San Francisco. Derryfield Head of School Marc Hurlbut and Lynn invited Joel to help out with the new program in Manchester, New Hampshire. His legacy from his time with BTM includes the introduction of Super Saturdays and School after School. He is most proud of building the endowment with the addition of the Elkin Teaching Fellowship and building the reputation of Breakthrough in the Manchester Community.
When Lois visited, she marveled, “No other program has as warm hellos and goodbyes as you do daily!” From the moment students got on the bus and throughout the day, they felt special. That special feeling begins with the name challenge Joel incorporated to encourage every student, Teaching Fellow, and staff member to learn each and every students’ name. This name challenge tradition carries on today and is something for all to aspire to each summer!
Joel finally realized the dream of attending Harvard with admission into the doctoral program at Harvard School of Education. It was here he met his wife and upon completion of his dissertation launched a 19-year career with Jobs for the Future focused on economic advancement and aligned with the ethos and mission of Breakthrough.