Potential first-generation students from across Southwest Virginia are seeing a world of new possibilities through Virginia Tech’s Upward Bound program.

When LaTayja Bell enrolled in the program’s six-week summer session, the rising junior at William Fleming High School in Roanoke had plans to follow in her family’s footsteps and join the military after high school.

“I really did it for the college experience, to see if I wanted to change my mind and go to college instead of the military. And I think I might. I like the routines and that you get to really be you and grow into an adult,” Bell said.

Upward Bound is part of the university’s TRIO Programs, part of Outreach and International Affairs. The programs have been supporting low-income, first-generation students in the region for more than 50 years. The U.S. Department of Education recently awarded Virginia Tech $5.7 million to continue its three Upward Bound programs for another five years.

TRIO Programs will receive about $1.1 million each year to serve more than 200 students through programs in Salem and Roanoke City and a regional program for seven other school divisions in Southwest Virginia. 

To qualify, students must be first-generation students, meet income-eligibility requirements, or be considered at high risk of academic failure.

Some students need to improve their grades or take more rigorous courses to be considered for college admission. Tutoring and other academic resources give them the extra boost they need. Others may be honors students who need to gain confidence through financial aid workshops, college tours, and cultural field trips.

“It’s difficult for many students to know what to do and when to do it,” TRIO Programs Director Frances Clark said. “Upward Bound offers an intensive program that helps them gain access to higher education.”

It does that through academic, cultural, and social support, including one-on-one counseling and tutoring throughout the school year, local and regional field trips and college tours, and a summer program that allows students to live on campus for up to six weeks.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 86 percent of Upward Bound participants enroll in postsecondary institutions immediately following graduation.

Clark said, “The intent of our staff is to help students make choices that will give them options. For example, if you don’t take enough foreign language courses you aren’t going to be able to get into some colleges. Same thing with math. You have to have enough math — and the right math. We give them that advice and support so they can be successful.”

Four students and their teacher gather around a table covered in spools of colorful yarn and other crafting supplies.
High school students LaTayja Bell (from left), D’naya Paschal, Cameron Rinker, and Landon Routt listen to instructions from Spanish teacher Reina LaForce about how to craft their own Guatemalan worry doll during a class in Lavery Hall. Photo by Diane Deffenbaugh for Virginia Tech.

Upward Bound’s unique summer residency program gives students a taste of college life and, for many, the new experience of living away from home.

“Some students are really excited, really adventurous, and it’s not much of an issue,” Clark said. “But some students really struggle with that transition of being away from friends and family. It’s better to have that experience before leaving for college, when there’s much more on the line.”

Students take classes aligned with a college preparatory curriculum and designed to strengthen their academic skills. Classes are taught by faculty members, graduate students, and high school teachers.

The summer program also includes STEM classes through Unite, a nationwide program that helps historically underserved students pursue college degrees in engineering and other STEM-related fields. The two-year, $54,525 supplemental funding from the Army Educational Outreach Program includes classes in architecture and career exploration.

Xaynder Knode, a rising sophomore at Salem High School, is getting an academic boost for the fall in classes such as geometry and biology. But gains from the program don’t just come from the classroom.

“I only really talk to maybe eight or nine people at school,” he said. “Upward Bound has helped me meet so many new people.”

Students live in residence halls with roommates who may have very different perspectives, providing crucial lessons on surviving in a diverse community.

“Roommate issues, while they don’t show up on a transcript, can have a huge impact on a student’s success during their first year of college,” Clark said. “Helping students develop skills like talking to a roommate, as well as being comfortable approaching faculty with questions, are really important to a successful first year of college.”

To help them through the transition, student resident assistants live in the residence halls and offer advice and help with any problems that might arise.

Jordan LaBord of Chesapeake, Virginia, has served as a resident assistant and tutor for several years, starting when he was a first-year student at Virginia Tech. He’s back in the residence halls for the summer even though he just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public relations.

“I love working with the kids. At first, they are kind of reluctant, but then you see them become more open and start to jump at opportunities,” he said. “It starts to click in their head that ‘Oh, maybe I do want to go to college. There is more to life after high school.’”

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