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Upward Bound students are confident and college-bound

Upward Bound Students make clay bowls for a local food pantry.

More than 70 high school students lived and learned on WVU Tech’s Beckley campus this summer as part of a six-week Upward Bound residence experience. The federal TRIO program, which was recently awarded a five-year grant to continue operation, is designed to give high schoolers a preview of the college experience.

“Upward Bound is a program that helps high school students prepare for college,” said Jennifer Bunner, director of the Upward Bound program at WVU Tech. “Specifically students who come from lower-income families and whose parents haven’t gone to college and aren’t really sure how to help their children explore careers, educational choices or how to pay for college.”

Students in the program work with an education counselor throughout the year for tutoring and college prep. Many of those students go on to participate in the summer program, where they live on campus, attend courses and enjoy a wide range of field trips and cultural experiences.

The current group has attended classes on everything from math and science to French, drama and debate. They spent their free evenings at the local YMCA, traveled to a Renaissance Fair in Kentucky and created bowls for a local food pantry as they learned about the importance of community service.

Noah Jenkins is a 17-year-old student from Ansted, West Virginia. His sister was in the program before him, so he knew what he was getting into.

"It just seemed like a great opportunity to experience the world a little,” he said.

The 17-year-old will graduate from Midland Trail High School in 2018. After that, he wants to study computer engineering at WVU Tech.

“We're learning about philosophy. We're learning math and French. We have weight and fitness training. All kinds of stuff. It's just a great opportunity for people to see college as it would be in real life. It's a great time," he said.

The group was in Baltimore this week. They visited the Inner Harbor, set sail on real ships and toured college campuses.

The college visits are a running component of the program. It’s such a prominent feature that student will visit between 15 and 20 colleges and universities throughout their high school career as they participate in the program. 

“We take them to most of the state colleges and universities as well as private colleges. We also tour out-of-state institutions,” said Bunner.

“The goal for us is to help our students find the best match. When they find a good fit, they have a very satisfying college experience and are more likely to graduate and be successful in their academic pursuits,” she said. 

Counselors and confidence boosters

Bunner said that the summer program’s success is also driven by its counselors, known as tutor/mentors – or “TMs.” TMs are typically college-age students, many of whom are former students from the Upward Bound program.

Kara Gill, 18, is from Ansted, West Virginia. A recent high school graduate, Gill wants to be a nurse and will start her college journey at BridgeValley Community and Technical College in August.

"I was in Upward Bound all four years of high school and I really liked it because it helped me figure out where I wanted to go to college and what I wanted to do. I looked up to my TMs a lot, so I decided to be a TM, too, to help these kids in the same way," she said.

Ryan Muse, a 17-year-old from Oak Hill, West Virginia, agreed. He’s a former Upward Bound kid, too, and now he’s just wrapped up his first college course as a bridge student. He wants to go on to study special education at Concord University. He said his drive to help students is a result of experience in the program.

"I was only in it for two years, but it's probably the best thing I've ever done in my life because it just provides so many opportunities,” he said. “This is really just a positive influence all around for these kids. It has a real impact on peoples’ lives."

The program teaches students about various fields, but it’s also designed to be a confidence booster for these students who will soon be heading out into a world where they’ll have to explain their choices and interact with interviewers.

During the final week of the program, students give oral presentations in front of a faculty panel defending portfolios they developed in their time on campus. The class is designed to help students learn effective public speaking skills and how to present their work in an interview setting.

Veronica Drennen is an Upward Bound student from Oak Hill, West Virginia. At 16, she knows she wants to go into the medical field and help people. She just hasn't decided between dermatology or biochemistry. What she does know, though, is that she’ll be more confident as she pursues her chosen field thanks to her experience in Upward Bound.

"We learn a lot of skills on how to manage time and how to also have fun and meet new friends and be open. Before I came I was really shy. And I wouldn't like talking in front of large crowds. I wouldn't do this interview,” she said. “But now I'm open and I can do my presentation class and not worry about whether or not I'm going to be good at it."