Almost every student has a favorite teacher, one with whom they feel a connection and who inspires them. For Tom Coburn, that teacher was Evren Gunduz.
“Evren was my eighth-grade teacher at Hopkinton Middle School [in 2004-05],” said Coburn. “He was by far the best teacher I’d ever had in my life up to that point, because he used the class to teach more than just science and what the school wants you to teach. He taught us all of this stuff about life and leadership and happiness and things like that.
“At the time I just thought, OK, he’s a great teacher now, but I’ll probably have way better teachers as I go through high school and college. But I never found anyone even close to him.”
Coburn went on to start a digital marketing technology company called Jebbit during his sophomore year at Boston College.
“It’s ended up going really well now, we’ve raised about $20 million in funding, we’re like 75 people in downtown Boston,” Coburn said. “I basically used all the leadership principles Evren taught me to start the company, and our whole culture is based on everything I learned from Evren.
“Once the company was up and running I went back to him and asked him, ‘Hey, what are you doing with this curriculum? You’ve been teaching it in Hopkinton, it’s amazing, but more kids outside of Hopkinton need to learn this.’ And he had the same exact theory.”
Coburn and Gunduz discussed some options and eventually decided to start a summer program, the Enjoy Life Leadership Academy, which now is part of the Enjoy Life Education nonprofit organization. At the camp — this year being held from July 8-12 at Assumption College in Worcester — they work to empower high school students with the tools to “lead full, thriving and vision-driven lives.”
At its start eight years ago, the camp drew students from Hopkinton and some surrounding communities. Eventually, in search of more diversity, Coburn and Gunduz (who no longer teaches in Hopkinton) reached out to Boys and Girls Clubs in Boston and Waltham along with a police-led nonprofit group in Dorchester.
“In the first few years when Evren and I were trying to get this off the ground we were just really focused on trying to nail the experience and make it amazing,” Coburn said. “So it was easiest for us to not really focus on the scholarship side of this, but get the students from the towns that already knew him to come. But we’ve always felt in our hearts, the program is not just designed for white kids from middle class or wealthy families. It was always our theory it really could benefit anybody who came.”
The response was overwhelmingly positive, but they needed financial support to get these kids involved. So, some parents donated so that a small group of disadvantaged students would get the same opportunity as their kids.
With the new students set to attend, Coburn and Gunduz weren’t quite sure what to expect, although they were cautiously optimistic this new group would have the same positive experience.
“It was an experiment for us last year,” Coburn said. “We weren’t sure going into it. That was our belief [that it would go well], but we weren’t sure. Are these kids going to come in with a totally different background, totally different home lives, and are they going to say, ‘None of this resonates with me.’ It’s very positive, it’s very high-energy, and we just weren’t sure. But it was an absolutely amazing experience.
“I had a bunch of the kids from Dorchester and Waltham by my office two weeks after the program last summer just so I could ask them about it. Their feedback was insanely positive, and the same that we get from all the students from Hopkinton and Dover and Westwood that come. That gave Evren and I the confidence to say, ‘OK, let’s keep expanding where we pull students from and go more public this year with trying to raise money for the scholarship fund.’ ”
Added Coburn: “One of the coolest things we learned was one of the girls from Waltham went up to her staff member on Friday [the final day of camp]. She’s black, and she said to the staff member, ‘I didn’t know that white people have these problems, too.’ Because she had heard from some of the different girls she met that are white. One girl was dealing with depression, one with a lot of confidence issues, things like that. For this girl, growing up in Waltham and being black, she just had a perception that if you’re white your life is perfect and you don’t have any problems.”
The feedback was positive from the Metrowest attendees as well.
“One of the moms from Hopkinton pulled me aside on Friday last year when she came to pick up her daughter. We essentially randomize the rooming assignments, and her daughter happened to be rooming with one of the girls from Dorchester who lives in the projects there. Her mom said to me, ‘Hey did you have some students from Dorchester here this week that are from the projects?’ I said, ‘Yes, we did,’ and I wasn’t sure where she was going with it. And she just said, ‘Thank you so much. Our daughter was rooming with one of them and she was texting my husband and I last night about how amazing this girl is she met and how hard her life’s been.’ She said, ‘We’re not sure she knew what the projects were when she went to the academy earlier this week.’ ”
For more information about the Enjoy Life Leadership Academy Scholarship Fund, visit enjoylifeeducation.org.