Things are looking up

MARSHALL – For seven years, Marshall and Yellow Medicine East High School students have been benefiting from the existence of the Upward Bound program, which is in its 50th year nationally.

Upward Bound is a federally-funded program that is said to nearly triple the chances of low-income, first-generation students graduating from college so they have the opportunity to escape poverty and enter the middle class. It began as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War of Poverty in 1964 and has currently served more than 2 million students nationwide.

“It’s a great program,” said Amy Nemitz, program director for the Marshall area. “I love it. It’s my dream job. I absolutely love what I do because it’s so rewarding.”

Nemitz said because of grant requirements, 56 kids are included in the program each year.

“The students start between their eighth- and ninth-grade year,” she said. “The program starts in September and it runs with the school year. We do tutoring after school two days a week at both high schools. And we have a 6-week summer program, too.”

While the summer program is optional, Nemitz recommends the experience. A typical day includes classes throughout the day, along with an hour of computer lab time, followed by a variety of fun activities in the evening. There are also college visits and field trips.

“The kids have classes in Spanish, science, math, reading, writing, literature and then ACT prep,” said Jennifer Keely, who just completed her fifth year of teaching for Upward Bound. “They also do some sessions and seminars on financial literacy and financial aid. They also do some fun things. All their trips have college tours built in, too.”

Keely said she enjoys working with the kids every summer and looks forward to it all year.

“It’s so much fun that I’ve come back every summer since I began,” she said. “I like to see the kids who are taking that extra step. They’re choosing to be in a summer school and earn an elective credit. It’s great to see their motivation and their excitement about learning continue into the summer.”

With varying ages of students, who are often at different academic stages as well, Keely said she tries hard to meet students where they’re currently at.

“I ask each kids what they want to work on this summer, where they feel they are weak, so we can build some strategies in and hopefully help them improve their skills for the traditional school year,” Keely said. “I approach our class as I’m going to meet you where you’re at. I really like seeing the kids summer after summer as they grow up and mature, to see how much further we can get with activities than last year and to see their developmental growth as individuals in personality and skill set.”

Since the purpose of the program is to prepare students for college life, participants stay in the dorms at Southwest Minnesota State University during the week and go home on the weekends during the summer program. During the school year, teachers come to them at their schools.

“Staying in the dorms and eating at the cafeteria are all part of the college stimulation,” Keely said. “They have to learn that they should not be acting like a freshman or whatever. They have to elevate to college level. It’s a nice incentive to encourage that maturity.”

The experience also creates lasting friendships.

“I really like the program,” sophomore Jamilla Vue said. “I like getting close to my friends again. I get to spend a lot of time with them and it’s really fun. I love the activities and it’s fun to stay in the dorms, too.”

Senior Ashley Johnson has been part of the Upward Bound program, but hadn’t taken advantage of the summer session before this year. Now, she’s glad she made the decision to stay in the dorms and learn over the summer.

“It’s kind of time away from home, time to figure out how it’s going to be in college,” Johnson said. “That’s beneficial, especially since I’ll be apply to college this fall and all.”

A new class this year – ACT prep – has been a hit with participants. SMSU graduate Ethan Hildebrandt teaches the class during the summer and also helps with tutoring.

As students graduate the program and high school, Nemitz fills in vacancies with new incoming ninth-graders. Nemitz said she appreciates that some of those graduating return and serve as tutors. Four of the five resident advisers (RAs) – Larry Yang, Mary Yang, Gina Vue, Promise Nkwocha and Tobiloba Adegbuyi – are also former Upward Bound students, which says a lot about the program. With the exception of Tobi, the others have been through the program, graduated high school and are in colleges now.

“To have that consistency speaks highly of Amy and the program, that our graduates want to come back and be RAs,” Keely said.

Sophomore Claudia Hernandez, who took part in the summer program for the first time this year, has found Upward Bound to be helpful academically and wants to continue as a student and later, as an RA.

“I will probably do the summer program again next year,” she said. “I enjoy it. It’s tiring, but worth it. It’s fun to be around friends. After, I’d like to be an RA, too.”

During the summer, Hernandez said her favorite class is either literature or reading, while her favorite during the school year is math.

“I’m not a big fan of reading, but it’s easier to understand here,” she said. “I think it’ll help me for the fall. I did the tutoring over the school year last year and I think it actually helped me a lot. My grades improved because I was starting to understand things better, especially having one-on-one with the tutors.”

Jamilla Vue said she thinks her writing skills have improved over the summer.

“I usually don’t like writing, but I’m getting pretty good at,” she said. “I have good ideas. This week, we have to write our own stories, but it has to conclude with a picture that our teacher showed us. She showed us seven pictures of completely different things. I picked the one with a diner in it.”

Abdirzak Mohamed is in his third year with the program and has found the experience to be enjoyable and beneficial.

“I decided to do the program because my sisters were in it and it pushes you to work harder, shows you different colleges and helps you out with the ACT,” Mohamed said. “It pays your ACT the first time out. I like the program because it gives you an idea about how college life is, without parents telling you what to do. You have to do it yourself. There’s nobody pushing you. If you miss class, it’s on you, not anyone else. I think I’ve matured more by being here.”

Mohamed noted that he’s also had a lot of fun. He appreciated that the students got to help come up with activities to do this year.

“They’re giving us choices and we get to make an activity of our own,” he said. “There’s a contest and the person who makes the best activity gets a prize at the end. So far, the water balloon fights have been the most fun. But I also like just hanging out with friends. You get to make new friends, too.”

Nemitz said the students have also had the opportunity to take part in activities such as tie-dying, soccer tournaments, basketball, baking, a Capture the Flag glo-stick tournament, Minute-to-Win-it games, a talent show, and much more.

“We keep them very busy,” she said. “They all get along. And we learn so much about each other.”

Student took a number of trips during the summer as well, including one to Prairie Woods Environmental enter back in June.

“They loved it,” Nemitz said. “They do canoeing, rock wall climbing, games where they do some leadership building and team building and of course, the flying squirrel. On the way home, we stopped at Ridgewater College in Willmar. We pack a lot in during the summer.”

Students also visited Southeast Technical Institute and Augustana in Sioux Falls (S.D.) as well as St. Scholastica and the University of Minnesota-Duluth during the final week of the program recently.

If students cooperate fully, they’ll earn an elective credit for their effort, with a possibility of four total if they begin as incoming freshman. More importantly, they’ll have experiences that hopefully lead them on a successful career path in the future.

A total of 964 programs are funded throughout the 50 states, with more than 80,000 students participating. Locally, former director Deb Carrow wrote the first Upward Bound grant, which started in 2008 and ran for four years. A second grant in the amount of $1.25 million was awarded for the years 2012-2017 ($250,000 per year). Though it is a few years off, Nemitz knows that she will definitely be advocating to continue the Upward Bound program.

Nemitz appreciates that the program is very comprehensive and has a solid success rate for its participants.

“Once a student is in the program, they’re in until they graduate,” she said. “It’s one of the objectives written into the grant. By the time they graduate, they kind of become your kid. You’ve helped them through the whole thing, with the ACT and applying for colleges, helping them fill out applications and financial aid, so it’s really a privilege for them to be in the program.”

Nemitz is required to do a lot of paperwork and track student progress as part of the grant requirements, but she doesn’t mind because she’s seen how worthwhile the program is for students, and really, for the community, as well.

“We make good connections and have good resources for them,” she said. “And we track them while they’re in college, though we don’t serve them financially anymore. We track where they go to college and how many years it takes them to graduate, just things to let us know if what we’re doing is successful. That’s the whole point of the program, to help them get into college and graduate.”