Nothing lights up a room more than the wattage of a confident smile on a young person’s face. Not much compares to the visible determination shown when one stands in front of an audience to present information about a program that, since 1964 nationally and at the University of San Diego since 1998, works hard to put an end to the following disheartening statistic.
“Low-income students are nine times more likely to not attend college or obtain a college degree.”
Three Kearny High students, in three separate presentations Wednesday on the USD campus, recited these words. Certainly it’s a sobering thought, but these students and many more are doing something to change this perception.
Forty-five students are wrapping up their time in the 2014 USD TRiO Upward Bound five-week summer residential program. Running on campus since late June, the program combines academics, leadership, social change, public speaking, dance and local educational field trips and college campus visits throughout Southern California all into one.
Upward Bound (UB) is an important platform for underrepresented students. To be eligible for USD’s UB program, now in its 15th year, all students are from Linda Vista’s Kearny High Educational Complex. Students must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, be in grades nine through 11, meet low-income guidelines and/or be a first-generation student wanting to attend college and motivated to earn a college degree.
USD UB students are thriving. They work hard. Some are in their second or third year and they beam with pride when they see the results of their time, effort and dedication. Newcomers, too, grow more comfortable with each passing day.
“We are so proud of all of our Upward Bound students,” says Cynthia Villis, PhD, director of USD’s UB program and USD’s Institute of College Initiatives. She’s been connected to UB since 1998 when she wrote a successful grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Education. Subsequently, she’s written more grants that have totaled in excess of $4.25 million.
“What keeps me hooked on this program,” Villis said, “is just being around the students.”
There’s Ben Washington, a senior this fall, who wants to pursue architecture and drafting in college. His UB participation has enhanced his overall skill set. “This program has given me the opportunity to develop my soft skills, to improve my work ethic and time management.”
Damontae Hill’s initial frustration over trying to balance his academic workload with other activities has given way to improved self-confidence. “Being in Upward Bound makes me want to strive to do better, to use my time wisely. I’m more determined.”
New students Sophia Valirova and Melinda Vue are soaking up everything this first summer, but both are happy.
“Everyone is quite friendly and I’ve really enjoyed it,” Valirova said. “I’ve also enjoyed the forensics biology class.”
Vue likes a dance class, but equally appreciates the value of her public speaking course. “It’s so useful to get exposed to a skill that can really help us going forward.”
Students take four classes to prepare for their fall return to Kearny High. Course subjects include English, math (pre-calculus), science (physics and forensic biology) and more. There’s also an emphasis on leadership and social change skills development via UB instructor Rachel Acosta, who is a double USD alumna (2006 BA Sociology, 2012 MA Leadership Studies).
Equally important is a Senior Seminar course to assist students with key information and to answer questions about college applications, financial aid, scholarship forms, and advice on writing a personal statement essay.
Aside from academics, UB students bond through on-campus activities, including Mic Night, a film festival, a game of “Capture the Flag” or a sports contest. Educational/cultural field trips to multiple Southern California college campuses, a San Diego Padres baseball game, Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo, and a Mission Bay beach day are all part of the fun.
To say that the USD UB program is a success, one only has to look at the numbers. More than 400 Kearny students have graduated from it and 92 percent have gone on to attend college.
One Linda Vista family, the Fangs, has five USD UB alumni siblings, including Sou, a current USD senior architecture major. The family’s oldest son, Tou, was in the first USD UB cohort. Following him, in succession, were Ger, Sou, Christopher and Steven.
While UB has successfully drawn students to USD, Villis said universities with UB programs aren’t allowed to use it as a recruiting tool. The goal is specifically to prepare and motivate students for high school and, ultimately, college success. There are more than 750 UB programs nationwide. This year marks the 50th year for TRiO’s UB, which was created during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency.
Anchored by the principles of “The Rock, the River and the Tree” — providing an academic foundation (rock), instilling a life-long values system for each person (river) and helping students build a strong, broad support system (tree) — the USD UB summer program is fulfilling its purpose.
“It’s a satisfying feeling to be part of our student’s lives, especially since I’ve had the same life,” said Cristina Aguirre, USD UB’s veteran assistant director. She was in a UB program at UC San Diego. “I feel fortunate to pay it forward.”
Indeed, Aguirre, who earned a master’s degree in counseling through USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences in 2013, knows how important her role is to the success of UB students’ own college preparation.
“I think the determination and the motivation of students is the same, but what’s changing are the higher standards … it’s more competitive than ever to attend college,” she said. “Applying to college is much different than when I did it. Students need to be extra resourceful now to compete.”
Academic Counselor Norma Rojas, a 2012 USD alumna (BA, Ethnic Studies and Spanish), has a similar role. She served as a summer UB resident advisor during her four USD undergraduate student years. But now, with a master’s degree in multicultural counseling from San Diego State, Rojas’ impact is even greater.
“It’s always had a special place in my heart,” said Rojas of UB and similar programs that provide meaningful opportunities for underrepresented students.
As academic coordinator, Rojas knows the role she has in the students’ development. She enjoys the results: seeing students excel in courses; having important conversations and answering questions; and seeing students take initiative in getting their work done.
She’s been especially appreciative of the kindness displayed by UB students.
“There have been pieces of candy or some origami left by my (residence hall) door. When I see it, I know it’s been left by a student. I think it is great that they appreciate the experience they’re having here.”
— Ryan T. Blystone