Breaking Down Barriers

Jessica Berg and the STEP Student Expedition Program

Jessica Berg is the real deal. Walking into her home you get the sense of a women with an earthy artistic sensibility. She is warm, engaging and deeply committed to her role as a wife and mother. But once you start talking to her, you realize she’s also a sharp businesswoman with a passion for the nonprofit social service community and a mission to make a difference. She served as director of Congregation Kehillah in Scottsdale prior to assuming her role as chief operating officer of the STEP Student Expedition Program in March of 2015. STEP is a program devoted to breaking down the barriers of privilege and enabling low-income families to send their kids to four-year universities across the country. STEP is also about sending those kids on a wilderness expedition – one that opens up their world and broadens their horizons – but more about that later. “I grew up with privilege, so I don’t judge privilege,” Jessica says. “But STEP is about changing who gets educated in this country.”

One of the STEP requirements is that a student be a “first gen” or first generation in their family to go to college. “First-gen, low-income families have become a major priority at a lot of colleges,” Jessica says. The list of schools STEP students attend is an impressive one, including Duke, Georgetown, Emory, UCLA, Middlebury and Smith College to name a few. For kids who normally would miss out on college or attend local community college, STEP offers a world of opportunities to attend an impressive list of four-year universities, many of which offer STEP students full tuition waivers.

Jewish values began at home

Jessica grew up in a Jewish home where Jewish values were simply part of her everyday experience. “Tikkun olam always resonated with me,” she says. “It was just part of who we were. It was ingrained in me by my parents. I wasn’t even conscious about it until I was much older. My parents taught me that just living Jewish values within our immediate community wasn’t enough. You need to take that idea of repairing the world into the larger community.”

She credits her father for a lot of her passion to help people. As a plastic surgeon, he spent much of his time devoted to emergency surgery. One of her father’s patients paid her bill with a rhubarb pie because that was all she could afford. Jessica’s father spent time working in Africa, where he operated on a young girl with a cleft palette and multiple deformities. The girl later converted to Judaism due to Jessica’s father’s kindness and the strength of his impact.

Devoted to closing the education gap

Jessica’s devotion to STEP and to closing the education gap between high- and low-income kids is palpable. “We’ve found the way to break the chain of generational poverty,” she says. “It’s through higher education.”

How does a student expedition program such as STEP lead young people toward a college path and subsequent life and career success? Dr. Tracy Baynes, founder and president of STEP, explains: “Through challenges met, students come to realize that they have a tremendous wealth of personal strength from which they can draw to shape their futures. They recognize that with determination, perseverance and hard work, success can be reached even in the face of hardship. The result is one of individual transformation.”

Nearly half of all low-income high school students never go to college, a rate five times that of high-income students. Even more disturbing is that in predominantly low-income high schools, the college completion rate is only 8%. So where does income inequality really rears its ugly head? Right in the world of higher education. Luckily, STEP is bridging the gap between the haves and the have nots and making the four-year college experience a reality for many low-income Arizona students who will be the first generation in their families to go beyond high school to higher academic achievement.

Breaking the chain

STEP was founded in 2002 by Dr. Baynes, a veteran in experiential education and expedition leadership. Dr. Baynes has devoted decades to leading expedition-based programs designed to build students’ self-confidence, increase their ability to meet new challenges and broaden their view of their own capacity to achieve academic and life success. She had worked as an Instructor with National Outdoor Leadership School, Outward Bound and Semester at Sea, where she saw the impact the transformative powers of expedition-based education.

Dr. Baynes initially developed STEP as an Alaskan wilderness leadership expedition program to break the chain of generational poverty.

“Trust me, this is not a vacation,” says Jessica. “There are no cell phones allowed. These kids learn how to survive in the wilderness – and this achievement is transformational.” STEP students partner with the National Outdoor Leadership School to venture into the backcountry of Alaska to learn survival and leadership skills that will last a lifetime.

STEP now funds two three-week Alaskan expeditions each year and plans to offer a third in the near future. The organization also offers a college preparatory program for high school students from low-income families. Since the initiation of the college prep program in 2011, 100% of STEP participants have gone to college, and Jessica estimates that 98% of those students will graduate successfully. The college prep course offers training in standardized test prep, monthly workshops, intense homework assignments, writing, scholarship coaching, presentation skills, email etiquette, one-on-one staff interaction and counseling, and a host of other college-related skills that may previously have been unavailable to low-income students.

Jessica is eager for STEP to help even more students. “We’re still small and want to grow the organization,” she says. “We have four paid staff, and it’s just not possible for us to do everything we want to do. We are all super proud and positive about what STEP is doing. We can’t help every child. But we are very clear about who we are and what we can do.”

As COO, it is sometimes difficult for Jessica to balance her career and family life. “Sometimes the juggling can be a challenge,” she says. “You have to learn to be OK with being ‘good enough’ on both ends.”

Jessica is truly passionate about breaking down barriers. “We all want to work to achieve diversity,” she says. “But how do you do that? STEP offers solutions that change families forever. This is how you do it, for the community and for the kids.”

For more information on STEP, visit or contact Jessica at

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