BLACKFOOT — Alec Marotz took a deep breath, paused, then karate chopped a thin piece of wood bearing his biggest fear about going to college — becoming an adult.
“I’ve just never really wanted to grow up,” said Marotz, sporting a loose T-shirt, long hair and aviator sunglasses. “And college sort of means growing up.”
Marotz, 18, “barely” graduated from Blackfoot High School last year and now works in produce at the local Walmart, though he hopes to one day go to college. He’s one of several hundred East Idaho teens who last week stopped by the Buck the Quo booth at the Eastern Idaho State Fair in Blackfoot to write down — and subsequently karate chop — their fears and apprehensions about the future.
“I can’t lie, it felt pretty good breaking that piece of wood,” Marotz said.
Buck the Quo is a social change campaign to help Idaho teens better understand and pursue their college and career options after high school. Backed by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, it’s also part of a larger statewide push to improve Idaho’s dismal college go-on rates, which hover around 50 percent. (Hence, Buck, as in “shake off” or “reject,” and the Quo, as in Idaho’s status-quo go-on rates.)
To help do this, BTQ staffers embark on an annual statewide tour to fairs and other places teens gather. The event highlights a different activity each year. In 2016, for instance, teens wrote themselves letters of encouragement, which staffers mailed out months later. This year, participants opened up about their fears and apprehensions regarding the future. Staffers provided advice and some online resources to help quash these concerns, including Buck the Quo’s Youtube page. Students then wrote their fears and apprehensions on pieces of wood and “broke through” them with fairgoers looking on.
Tameshiwari, the Japanese art of breaking objects, is one of several unorthodox approaches BTQ staffers use annually to nab teens’ attention at events: A 6-by-20 foot renovated shipping container, stocked with sunglasses in boxes bearing the phrase “hella bright” (as in a bright future), serves as the campaign’s event booth, and two lemon-lime styrofoam bucks guard its entrance — another play on the campaign’s aim to buck trends.
The cryptic props and hands-on activities help reach a “media saturated, ad-averse generation,” says, Jess Carter, a Buck the Quo staffer and account director at Drake Cooper, the Boise-based brand builder that helped launch the campaign a few years ago.
“If we stood out here and said, ‘Hey, come in here and let’s talk about your plans for the future,’ we wouldn’t get very many people to do it,” Carter said.
The unorthodox approach also plays out differently for teens. One used his head to break through his board. Another said she participated just to get a free pair of sunglasses. Last year, one teen used information gleaned from the tour to get into film school in Los Angeles, Calif.
But some teens opened up about deeper and very personal roadblocks, including drug and alcohol addiction. Carter said one teen broke a board bearing her bout with abuse as a child.
“It means something different to each one,” Carter said.
Mary Cather, 17, said breaking her board helped her gain confidence going into her first semester at BYU-Idaho. Last year’s letter, written to herself, also came at the perfect time. “I said just what I needed to hear,” she said.
The event also helped staffers cue in on larger issues hampering Idaho’s college go-on trends. Carter and fellow staffer DJ Ramirez said many East Idaho teens readily tout their college plans, but haven’t taken key steps toward making it happen, like filling out federal paperwork and checking out nearby colleges and universities.
Idaho Education News and Buck the Quo are both sponsored by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.