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Thinking ahead

Upward Bound educates a new generation of youth,
and the risks and rewards have never been greater

By Carla Guerrero

 

CLAREMONT, CALIF.--At eight in the morning on a crisp Saturday in November, most high school students are still in bed. But students involved with the Upward Bound program at Harvey Mudd College have already been up for at least two hours with a pencil and a notebook in hand.

 

A group of almost 100 sophomores, juniors and seniors from four area high schools are up as early as 6 a.m. to attend five hours of tutoring, classes, college counseling and, of course, brunch. They are coming from overcrowded high schools where, as freshmen, they are not receiving the academic support needed to prepare for a four-year college.

 

Getting accepted to an academically strong four-year institution is more competitive every year, particularly for students of color whose numbers are improving but still remain underrepresented in college classrooms. In addition to the hurdles of financing a college education, students face admission requirements that have become more stringent at a growing number of institutions. Those who have the best chance of getting in the top schools are the students who have had the benefit of a good high school education supplemented with SAT preparation classes, private tutors and parents who have gone to college and already know how to navigate the college prep and admission process. Some students realize they need the extra assistance, and they willingly make the sacrifices demanded by Upward Bound.

 

“I gave up most of my summer,” said Ernesto Partida, a sophomore at Mountain View High School, about the Upward Bound program. He sees it as trade off, however; if he is in the program now, he’ll much better off later in life. “Thinking ahead,” he said.

 

Upward Bound was the first of three educational outreach programs, known as TRIO, which began with the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. The other two programs are Talent Search and Student Support Services, which also provides academic assistance to disadvantaged youth. Targeting low-income and first-generation college aspirants, Upward Bound and its companion programs seek to give students the preparation and support to go on to higher education.

 

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“What comes natural to a college student does not come natural to ours,” said Angie Covarrubias Aguilar, the Upward Bound director at Harvey Mudd College. The program, she said, focuses on developing the study skills needed for success in high school and beyond.

 

The program targets high schools suffering from high drop-out rates and little one-on-one attention between counselors and students. Students from Garey High School in Pomona, Bassett High in La Puente, Mountain View High, El Monte High and South El Monte High School, begin applying in their freshman year. Those fortunate enough to get accepted into Upward Bound must sign a contract with their parents, counselors and Upward Bound officials who will see them through the next three years of high school.

Improving access to college

 

Upward Bound is characterized by intense summer school programs and weekly tutoring sessions after school and on Saturdays throughout the academic school year. What sets the Claremont program apart from other Upward Bound programs is a rich summer curriculum that includes summers at Harvey Mudd, the University of California at San Diego, the University of California at Davis and Georgetown University. Before entering their sophomore year of high school, students move into dormitories at Harvey Mudd College where they spend a rigorous summer taking classes, getting tutoring and planning for college. It’s more of a boot camp, said Aguilar, where students start having breakfast at seven in the morning and end with three hours of study hall at 10 at night.

 

For most, she said, it’s their first time away from home. They live in co-ed dormitories, just like college students. It’s a tantalizing taste of what their future holds if they stick to the college path. “We build a community to resist what’s going around them,” said Aguilar. The intense summer is just the beginning of what will be a very demanding three years.

 

“I know how to study now—what to look for,” said Maricela Cruz, a sophomore at El Monte High School. As the youngest of her siblings, she only has one older sister in higher education. “I always wanted to go to college,” Cruz said. The summer at Harvey Mudd, she said, was fun. “It gave me a sense of college and we were able to learn more about each other.”

 

For students entering their junior year of high school, they have the option of spending their summer in La Jolla at UC San Diego or in Sacramento at UC Davis. For those more interested in the math and sciences, they head south and for those interested in the social sciences, they head north.

 

Carol Tsang, a junior at South El Monte High School, went to UC San Diego where she interned at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research as a biochemistry laboratory assistant helping research cures for cancer. While there, she said, she started doing simple tasks like cleaning tools and worked her way up to mixing chemicals. “It was fun, I tell my friends, and they’re like--wow, you worked in a lab—they wish they had that experience too,” Tsang said.

 

Rene Lopez, now a senior at Bassett High School, is applying to go to Rensselaer Politechnic Institute in New York and hopes to work for NASA one day. In San Diego, he interned at the Schilly Center for Orthopeadic Research and Education where he participated in workshops with new surgeons learning new procedures. For Lopez, the most exciting part was being able to see surgeries conducted on cadavers.

 

The top 14 seniors in the Upward Bound program get a special treat the summer before they enter their final year of high school. They spend the summer at Georgetown University. Lupita Huerta, a senior at Montain View High School, interned with Congresswoman Hilda Solis, who represents her community. “It was culture shock,” said Huerta, “there’s a whole different world out there.” Huerta wants to study international relations or law, her top choice school is Columbia University although she’s applying far and wide. Her goal is to one day work in politics.

 

The real world exposed

 

Simon Huynh, a senior at El Monte High School, also participated in the Georgetown summer program. He interned at the Library of Congress, working with the chief financial officer. After taking an accounting class during his freshman year in high school, looking at financial documents was fun and interesting, he said, to see things “being applied to real life situations.”

 

“Georgetown was an eye opener,” said Huynh, who after spending a summer in Washington, D.C. decided to apply to East Coast colleges and is hoping to get accepted to New York University.

 

The magic of a program like this one is clearly seen in the accomplishments and merits of its students. The summer school component is one of the most important in the program, but the weekly tutoring and mentoring sessions provide students with an outlet for their intellectual yearnings and their academic frustrations.

 

Victor Campos, like many of his fellow classmates, has found through Upward Bound that extra oomph needed to do better in school and help prepare for college. Campos was a student at Garey High School where he joined the Upward Bound program, but is now at the School of Arts and Enterprise in Pomona. He continued with the program, because as he said, “it really helps—academically, it really helps.” When he first entered the program, Campos had a 1.6 GPA. Today, he has a 3.8 GPA, an accomplishment he is very proud of.  “They put the pressure on you,” he said, “you got to study, to understand the English, etc.”

 

Campos spent his summer at UC Davis, interning at the California state capitol with Senator Gilbert Cedillo. At first, he said, they had him doing things like answering phone calls but soon, they invited him to attend and participate in meetings and hearings. Discussing issues like immigration helped Campos define his future goals. “It taught me what my interests are. It seemed they took into consideration what I said,” he said. Campos plans on one day becoming a state senator.

 

The best example of what a program like Upward Bound can do is found in its own director, Angie Covarrubias Aguilar. An alumna of the Upward Bound program at Harvey Mudd College herself, Aguilar attended Georgetown University where she dedicated her summers to work as a tutor for the program. Since 2001, Aguilar has made this her full-time job, a job that she said she enjoys because she’s able to relate to the students who come from the same place she did.

 

As college application time moves along, Upward Bound is continually providing its seniors with all the support they need. Aguilar can always be found reading over a student’s personal statement and college essay, asking them to explain and rewrite-- all the while encouraging them along the way. Aguilar said her students sometimes frustrate Upward Bound staff. But she also says, “they inspire us.”