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TRiO Upward Bound Helps Students Aim For Success After High School

Christal Culbertson
TRiO Upward Bound
Group photo of Upward Bound students gathered at ACU


While most high school students put away the books for summer, some students who need extra support continue working toward their long term goals with the help of mentors. 

Educators around the country have expressed concern about how COVID-19 has disrupted learning over the past year and a half.  And for students trying to wrap up their high school career successfully, the pandemic added an extra layer of uncertainty about the future.  Abilene ISD superintendent David Young says struggling students with additional barriers to learning received additional attention, “I would say probably even more than they were. We went into this school year trying to ramp up our social-emotional learning supports, our mental health supports, our college and career advising infrastructure support.”

And that support doesn’t stop when the final bell rings.  More than 50 Abilene high school students participate in TRiO Upward Bound each year.  It’s a federally funded program, designed to identify students from low-income backgrounds, or those who might be first generation college-bound, and provides a network of academic coaching, tutoring and support for basic needs through their high school years.  

"Our little tagline is 'college readiness and access,' but it's also high school success,” said Kelsey Leverett, the Development Advisor for TRiO Upward Bound at Abilene Christian University.  She says they provide a summer program to give students real-life experience, "The Summer Academy, where the students come and take classes to either catch up or get ahead, prepare them for SAT/ACT, as well as staying in the dorm. They navigate campus and go to different classes because we want them to kind of have an idea of what they are walking into. . .We travel every summer. So we’re doing a Texas tour to see what Texas has to offer for a lot of our students who really don’t get to travel very often."

It was one of those college visits that helped Cecilia Martinez get excited about attending Angelo State.  Martinez is a senior at Cooper High School, and is looking forward to this year’s Summer Academy because as a senior, she can now help others, "It’s an amazing opportunity to just learn about college. To see if it's really what you do or don't want. It's not just books and papers, no, it's always something new, but it’s always something fun."

Martinez says she is grateful for all that she’s gained from the tutors and advisors.  After watching her sister and cousins benefit from TRiO, she says for her it’s been a very personal experience.  "It's a family. You become family and you become a better person there,” Martinez says.  “The challenge is learning about other people. They treat you as an adult and you have to get used to it. You have to go in ready for anything and everything."  Martinez says those people skills and responsibility will be important in her future career. She's currently considering studying Criminal Justice at Angelo State University. 

Even though the program is based at Abilene Christian University, staff don’t treat it like a recruitment tool.  Leverett says some students choose to pursue a military career or trade school education, and the program helps students find the information they need to take those next steps. "We want them to succeed,” Leverett stresses.  “Sometimes, I think, more than that they want to succeed. We are rooting for our students’ success. You know, whatever it is that they need, we’re going to find a way to do that."

Sam Lopez joined the program after a friend in high school told his parents about it. He has just graduated from Abilene Christian University with an engineering degree, and says his family is still celebrating.  "My parents, at the hooding ceremony, was like, ‘I'm very proud of you’,” Lopez recalls.

Credit Dana Glover / KACU
Samuel Lopez is a recent graduate of ACU's engineering program, and an alum of TRiO Upward Bound

  Lopez, a first generation college student who participated in the program throughout his school career at ATEMS High, says accountability was the best thing Upward Bound taught him, "They kind of kept you accountable for the things you were assigned. They were saying, ‘hey you said you would do this. Are you actually going to do it?’ It's actually kind of nice that they reinforced that over 4 years. To say, ‘You have deadlines, you should meet them’."

Upward Bound’s Kelsey Leverett says monitoring students' grades and test scores to ensure they are meeting educational goals is one important piece of the support puzzle.

And as students get closer to the college application and graduation process, other TRiO team members partner with Leverett to offer college application assistance, guidance for completing financial aid forms like the FAF-SA and deciding what career planning track is best for each student. This can include paying for testing fees, and the program also offers a small stipend for participants.  Sometimes even small hurdles can seem overwhelming, "They have a goal, they just don't know how to get there. They think that some of these career choices don't require a lot of school, or any school. Sometimes just the education on the process is the nudge that they need."

Prior to the struggles created by the COVID-19 pandemic the ACU Upward Bound program had a 79% success rate for students moving on to post-secondary enrollments after graduating high school. Last year’s number fell to 59% of participating high school students achieving college acceptance, military recruitment and trade school enrollments. Leverett attributes that to online fatigue, “I know they are tired of everything being virtual. They don’t want to do another zoom call. So we’re looking forward to things getting back to normal, because there is so much more engagement; where we really haven’t had that right now.”

Current federal funding provides resources for up to 65 students from the Abilene Independent School District. The next Summer Academy begins on June 1st and still has a few openings available.  Contact  kelsey.leverett@acu.edufor more information.