The 50th anniversary of TRIO Programs, specifically Upward Bound, has given me several opportunities to share my experiences as both a former Upward Bound student and the principal of a public high school with an Upward Bound program.
I wax nostalgic as I reflect on my days as an Upward Bound student. I was in the inaugural class of UB students from Unicoi County High School in Erwin, Tenn. I was a wide-eyed sophomore from a rural and highly impoverished community in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. It only took one Monday night Upward Bound session at East Tennessee State University for me to realize that I was overly confident in my academic abilities and that there was a social element to academic success that I didn’t know existed.
The 30-minute van ride back to my high school’s parking lot seemed like a lifetime of reflection. Was I really smart? Was college a realistic goal? Why was I unable to add to the conversations of the evening? Will the poverty I had so hoped to escape be the reality of all of my tomorrows? My initial experience with Upward Bound created a discomfort and anxiety that was unfamiliar to me. I didn’t like this feeling, and my initial thoughts were to dismiss my thoughts and this program. After all, my abilities had been long confirmed by many teachers and most of my family. Who needed Upward Bound anyway?
I mentioned my concerns to my mother, albeit in very sophomoric verbiage, and was quite surprised by her rebuke. You see, my mother did not finish high school and gave birth to me when she was 16. I could see desire for my future in her eyes. Resigning from Upward Bound was not an option. She made it clear that I was going to honor my commitment, and this was the avenue to a responsible and happy life that seemed always beyond her reach.
I spent the next three years regularly challenged by UB teachers, supported by college-level tutors, enriched through plays and concerts, counseled by the UB staff; I became responsible through managing 18-hour days and dorm life during my summers, and I grew confident as I became an academic leader and a regular go-to for class discussions in my high school classes. The socially awkward sophomore who barely had a “B” average had morphed into an honors graduate who was also the outgoing president of the Student Government Association.
I would love to say college was the magical ending to my special story, but it wasn’t. Like most first-generation college students, there were still academic and social hurdles to conquer. What differentiated me from those other students, however, was the fact that I had developed the tools and skills, as well as the knowledge, to access resources to help me clear these hurdles. The end result so far has been three college degrees and the principalship of one of the most respected high schools in my state.
Many years and successes later, I look back on my time in Upward Bound with unflappable gratitude. The tools that led to my resiliency were a direct result of my experiences as an Upward Bound student.
My experiences with Upward Bound have helped me to support and advocate for the Upward Bound students at Dobyns-Bennett High School. Unfortunately, the program was only able to offer acceptance to nine of the 45 students from my school who applied for the opportunity to improve their futures. We will do our very best to support those 36 students who did not get accepted. I live the dividends of the Upward Bound investment and want so much for all of my students to experience those opportunities. I celebrate the students who take up the Upward Bound challenge. I know they are taking a necessary step to a life of fulfilled dreams and realized expectations.
It is safe to say, as I approach the midpoint of my 18th year as an educator, that the financial investment the government made in me, by way of Upward Bound, has been paid back many times over. It is critical that we continue to invest in breaking cycles of poverty and building communities through education.
Chris Hampton has served as the principal of Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport, Tenn., since 2011. He holds a doctorate of education from East Tennessee State University.
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