Living

Upward Bound experiences shaping, changing young lives

If there’s one lesson that summarizes what the Upward Bound program tries to instill in its participants, it’s this:

It takes more than good grades to get into college, as well as thrive in that environment, once a student is accepted.

This year, the national Upward Bound program celebrates its 50th anniversary of giving students from low-income families the academic support necessary to help them enter college.

Mercer University’s Upward Bound program started three years after the national program began as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.”

On Mondays and Wednesdays, students from Bibb County’s seven public high schools meet with Mercer students who tutor them in any academic subject necessary for that student’s improvement, usually in a one-on-one or one-on-two teaching situation.

But these days, students need more than just good grades as the competition to win admission to particular colleges gets stiffer -- and more costly.

That’s why Upward Bound also offers courses on Tuesdays and Thursdays to help with everything from the application process to obtaining financial aid and housing. In the classroom setting, students can ask about subjects as diverse as tips for taking the SAT to applying for scholarships.

Tameka Milligan, the assistant director for Upward Bound, said the program serves about 155 students in Bibb County each year and only adds new students when there are openings, such as when current students graduate. The program gets about 120 applications a year.

“It’s not a remediation program,” she said. “We’re taking students on their potential. (Students in the program) are ones that require tutoring because they are failing a core class. ... We start recruiting students in the eighth grade during spring semester.”

Students who apply for the program must have recommendations from a teacher and the school counselor.

PREPPING FOR COLLEGE

On a recent Tuesday, Dominique Johnson, the academic coordinator for Upward Bound, engaged nearly 40 12th-graders on a broad range of subjects.

Much like a Boy Scout, he tells them, it’s always important for prospective college students to be prepared.

“Preparation is going to help you, not only for college but for life,” he said to the class.

Over the 90-minute session, he asked students which colleges they planned to apply to; discussed the advantages and disadvantages of staying close to home versus going to a college in another state; and helped dissect an essay by Plato he had assigned them.

At times, it appeared chaotic as everyone tried to answer questions at once, but it was also clear that students were genuinely engaged and unafraid to ask questions.

“I have learned so much,” said Dalvin Andrews, a senior at Southwest High School. “There are things like financial needs and stuff, but I’m also learning things about life. That’s what they’re teaching us, to become better in society and to help people.”

Andrews said he would be the first person in his family to attend college. He’s aiming to go to Georgia Tech next year to study biomedical engineering.

“Without (Upward Bound), I wouldn’t be learning this,” he said. “People really don’t teach us this in our neighborhood.”

Jessika Smith, a senior at Central High School, said the program has taught her how to make better use of her time.

“We’re taking classes and learning from the best of the best in professors and advisers,” she said. “I learned a lot in communications skills. I’ve learned skills on how to be confident when I speak.”

Smith said she wants to study nursing, but she hasn’t decided yet where she will apply. She wants to stay in Georgia but study outside Middle Georgia.

It’s not just skills and process that Johnson teaches during his session. He also has to help students on a more basic level with their confidence, since the amount of paperwork -- not to mention the competitive nature of applying -- might seem overwhelming.

At one point, a student said there was no point in sending out applications, because she assumed her SAT scores wouldn’t be high enough to be considered.

“There’s no point in signing up when you’re going to be denied,” she told the class.

Johnson told her that applying to college is important no matter what, since there are plenty of variables that admissions officials consider.

“The thing is, you’ve got to get (the application) in,” he told the students. “You can’t think like that. They look at a lot of different things. And you can always take the SATs and ACTs again.”

The achievement rate among Upward Bound students is high. About 85 percent to 90 percent of them get into college and eventually graduate, Johnson said. Among those who don’t get in, some can’t go to college immediately because of financial issues and they enter the military instead.

That’s what happened to Keith Moffett, who’s now the director of the E-911 center for Macon-Bibb County. Moffett, who graduated from Northeast High School, was a student in Upward Bound from 1986-89. He was the first member of his family to attend college, but he first served a tour in the Navy to pay for his education at what was then Macon State College.

“It was a great experience,” Moffett said of the program, in which he now helps teach. “I finished (high school) as an honors student. ... It helped me understand the value of an education. I recently completed my Ph.D. I was talking with some of my classmates, and we all say we owe a lot to Upward Bound.”

ONE-ON-ONES

While grades aren’t the be-all and end-all for getting into college, they are a significant factor, which makes the tutoring that Upward Bound offers so important.

Alezandra Jordan and Chastity Williamson, two freshmen at Central, were both failing Spanish before working under the tutelage of Sterling Conyers, a Mercer freshman from Atlanta. Now, both high school students are nearly at a B average in the course after just a couple of months.

“At Central, it’s a big class,” Williamson said. “Here, it’s one-on-one.”

Lexus Shaw, a junior at Central, was struggling in chemistry before being tutored by Myers Hines, a Mercer freshman who is studying biology and Spanish.

“Mostly, it’s been getting help in what I needed to know,” said Shaw, who is in her first year with Upward Bound. “Some of my friends were talking about (the program), and my mom signed me up for it. I needed help in chemistry and math. Right now, I’m passing chemistry with a B. ... Lots of people talk in class. Here, (Hines) makes sure I understand the work. ... He’s a great teacher.”

Hines, who said he enjoys meeting new people and helping students with their subjects, said Shaw does the work she needs to do in order to improve.

“She’s gotten drastically better,” he said. “She’s asking questions. She’s doing the steps right. That’s pretty cool.”

For the Mercer students who are considering teaching in the future, Upward Bound provides the added bonus of getting experience working with high school students.

“I want to teach,” said Mariah Hankins, a Mercer senior majoring in literature and Spanish. “I just like working with people. A lot of (the tutoring) is in English, with essays. A lot of it is just structure. They’ll also ask me about dual enrollment, since I got my associate’s degree at Middle Georgia College.

“I like working with kids. They’re very bright. They pick up stuff and they’re willing to listen.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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