The pathway to higher education is an unfamiliar road, that is if siblings or parents haven’t traveled on before you, feels more like a road in another country where the signs are in a language you do not know.
And make no mistake, financial aid applications, differing deadlines for college applications and testing exams are a language that isn’t accessible for all.
But as the parents of Curglin Robertson, director of Upward Bound at Long Beach State, said to him when he was in high school, “You gotta do something,” so has the program said in their goals.
Upward Bound targets high schools in Long Beach, Compton and Paramount area, according to Robertson. The program, according to its website, is funded by the Department of Education and aims to serve students from low-income families, from households where no parents have a bachelor’s degree and first-generation students.
Robertson said that Upward Bound will send in college aides called coaches to assist students in whatever they need in their pursuit of higher education.
The coronavirus pandemic forced Upward Bound to reinvent their program as online services, like online tutoring or virtual Saturday Academy, which once bused students from the target schools to CSULB on the second and fourth Saturday of every month to learn.
Robertson said that the virtual academy averaged about 50 students, which was about half their previous in-person numbers.
Like the students that were adapting rapidly to their new way of life, so was the team at Upward Bound. Robertson said some students did not have printers and others did not have internet access or video capabilities.
“I think in some senses it made our program just think about certain themes, because we do service low income and first generation college bound students, but things we would think they would have based upon being enrolled into a high school program,” Robertson said. “Like, wait a minute, we got to do other things to try to make sure we assist the students with our services.”
Upward Bound began to offer nontraditional hours to be accessible to their students, including all day access to tutoring and would mail out materials as well.
But as Zoom fatigue began to grow, Robertson and the team at Upward Bound knew they would have to frame their services in more engaging ways ways to entice student participation.
Upward Bound did a virtual Harry Potter-themed summer program, sorting students into wizarding houses and creating activities and movie nights to participate in between classes and workshops.
In a non-virus year, the summer program was an opportunity for students to dorm at CSULB, attend classes and get the experience of what college can be like.
William Estrada, a second-year business management major and former participant in the Upward Bound program, got that opportunity.
“I got a little bit of the dorm life, which I had thought I would never,” Estrada said.
He learned about Upward Bound through a friend and said he wanted to join the program to expand his search when it came time to apply for college.
Estrada said the program took him and other members on field trips to universities every few months, including San Diego State University, University of Southern California and Chapman University.
He received help will application essays and said that he feels without Upward Bound, he would not be as confident as he is in his classes. Estrada also received help with scholarship applications and was awarded two scholarships.
“I’m really grateful for Upward Bound,” Estrada said. “They opened doors for my life.”
Robertson said that while Upward Bound pushes students for higher education, the program will nurture students’ interests even if they fall outside of traditional higher education careers.
Fostering those interests, paired with Upward Bound’s services to build strong educational habits and teaching writing and communication skills that are necessary in any field, help students realize that they are in control of their paths.
It helped students like Aylin Cruz, who is a second-year liberal studies major and a former participant of Upward Bound.
Cruz said she is still in contact with her advisor from Upward Bound who helps her when she is going through difficult times. It was her advisor that suggested she make the switch from mathematics education to liberal studies.
“They actually take time to get to know their students and actually take time to get to know what they’re going through,” Cruz said.
She was encouraged by her school counselor to join her senior year and did, and said that as a first-generation college student, she knew Upward Bound could assist her in her college applications.
Upward Bound also hosted workshops on time management and self-care. Workshops like that, plus being connected to her peers, helped Cruz improve her mental health.
“It was just a reminder that I’m important too, that for me to help others, I have to help myself first,” Cruz said.
According to Robertson, the most common challenges students face is the lack of preparation and knowledge of resources to pursue higher education. Upward Bound bridges that gap and gets students to consider their futures.
“This is their journey, okay,” Robertson said, explaining that this is what he tells the staff. “And one of the things you want to do is just give them information and if you don’t know the information, let’s try to look and find the information so that’ll make the students successful in their journey.”