At the beginning of the Lyndon State College Upward Bound program each summer, I have watched 50 teenagers take a monumental leap of faith. Students hug their families goodbye and board a bus full of other students from around the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and the North Country of New Hampshire. At 15 years old, would you have been brave enough to get on a bus with 50 strangers, give up six weeks of your summer vacation to take academic classes, and collectively volunteer 3,500 hours in the community? Upward Bound students do. Each and every summer. It might sound clichÃ©, but there is no other word for it: the Upward Bound summer program is magical. And yet, all of this is being placed at risk after the debt ceiling debates that raged in Washington, D.C. this summer. Decisions have been made, and now it is up to the "super committee" of 12 to determine whether or not big discretionary spending cuts will directly impact the educational opportunities of students in our community.
The Upward Bound summer program begins with a journey, a fitting metaphor for the journey they are truly embarking upon: the long and often winding path to college. Upward Bound students are the first in their families to pursue a college education and come from modest income backgrounds. Our trips together have taken us to historical cities, cultural hubs, beautiful college campuses, the center of nation's government, and into the wilderness. It is a great chance for young people from our community to see what is going on in the world around them and begin to discover what their role in that world might be. The promise of Upward Bound has always been one of guidance. "Here's the roadmap, here's what you do. You say this is your dream, well this is how you go out there and make it a reality." It is an incredibly powerful message to share with young people: "what you do right now matters, the choices you make and the work you put in to your education will determine your future, so just who do you want to be?" Through Upward Bound they are empowered, and together we undertake the journey to a college education.
The motivation these students possess is astounding! Through the guidance and opportunities offered in Upward Bound, the academic skills that students hone during their summer college preparatory classes, and the work ethic and love of community fostered in the summer volunteer program, these young people are well on their way to building a solid foundation for success. They challenge themselves academically: 54 percent achieved the honor roll last year at least once, and 24 percent are members of the National Honor Society. They also contribute generously to their communities, volunteering each summer with local businesses, hospitals, libraries, and daycare centers. During the school year they also volunteer with both the Burklyn Arts Holiday and Summer Craft Fairs, helping to support local artisans and raise money to fund art programs in our community schools. In addition, they are the student coordinators of the Warm the Children program, ensuring that the neediest schoolchildren in Orleans and Essex counties have new outdoor clothing for the harsh winter season. Upward Bound students are leaders for their peers. Last year 16 percent held student government positions, four won the Governor's Award for Community Service, four more attended the New England Student Leadership Conference, 11 students were selected to attend the University of Vermont Sophomore Summit, and six attended the JFK Global Leadership Conference in Boston. Five students competed in the Green Mountain Scholar's Bowl where they won 2nd place, 4 submitted a proposal to make their school more environmentally friendly at the JSC Greening Summit sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders, and 14 additional students represented LSC Upward Bound at the TRiO Day Celebration in Rhode Island where they met with hundreds of other college bound TRiO students from around New England.
The result of all their hard work is that the majority of these students win scholarships, making their dreams of attending college a financial reality! Thousands of dollars are awarded each year to Upward Bound students for their academic work ethic, dedication to community, and clear vision of their goal to attend college. Equally important, students have explored many college campuses and are able to choose a school where they will be most successful. The program provides the roadmap to access higher education for these students year in and year out, and the results speak for themselves: 99 percent of program graduates from 2000-2010 have enrolled in college immediately after high school, and 88 percent of program completers have either graduated from college or are still pursuing their education.
This summer, as these young people from our communities continued to work hard at Upward Bound to prepare for a college education, a "compromise" was reached between President Obama, the Senate, and the House regarding the debt ceiling crisis. The decisions made in Washington on July 31st will most likely include large cuts to discretionary programs, and could include cuts to TRiO's Upward Bound. Our President and our Government have claimed a strong commitment to improving access to post secondary education, including their goal to be number one in degree attainment by 2020. However, their actions tell a very different story, one which threatens to reduce or remove these programs that literally change lives. If equal access to education for all Americans is a promise that our government intends to keep, I don't understand how cuts to TRiO programs could even be on the table for discussion. When this issue is addressed again by the committee, I hope our elected officials will really consider what is at stake. Their decisions will have long ranging impacts on access to education not just for us and our children here in the Northeast Kingdom, but for first in family students across America.
Rose Reynolds is the assistant director of the Lyndon State College Upward Bound program.