Upward Bound Students Aim for College


by Joanna Klonsky

CHICAGO, IL—Early on Saturday mornings, while their friends are sleeping in after a long week of school, a crowd of teenagers converges on a building in Columbia College’s downtown Chicago campus. They come from all over the city, waking up extra early to catch the bus or train and arrive on time, pens, pencils and notebooks in tow.

They are participants in Columbia College’s Upward Bound program, and they’re ready to hit the books. Upward Bound, a federally-funded program geared to help low-income students prepare for college, is housed on college campuses all over the country.

Upward Bound is all about “helping students try to get into good schools and have a successful career later on,” says Upward Bound senior Oscar Martinez, 17. “They prepare you well enough to not be scared or nervous when you get to college. “

The program’s goal, to prepare students to earn a bachelor’s degree, is “very much spelled out in the legislation that governs the program,” says Columbia College Upward Bound Director Craig Kirsch. “We try to develop a college going culture from the very beginning. “

An Extra Boost

At Columbia’s Upward Bound program, the diverse group of students mainly comes from two Chicago high schools—Foreman, on the city’s northwest side, and Benito Juarez, in the Pilsen neighborhood. The students arrive promptly at 8 am on Saturdays during the school year and jump into an hour of academic tutoring. They spend the rest of their day in writing, science, computer and other classes to supplement their regular school week. They also receive college counseling and ACT preparation and learn about their financial aid options.

Part of the appeal for Upward Bound students is the classroom environment. Students here “respect the program” and are “more involved,” says Yesenia Olveira of Pilsen. “People seem happy here instead of school, where people are all sleepy. I know it’s early, but there’s life here,” she says. As for the teachers, Yesenia says, they’re “way cool.” In her classes, students are generally engaged, and the teachers “won’t move on unless people are on the same page,” she says.

Beyond Saturdays

During the school year, Upward Bound tutors set up shop on the campuses of Juarez and Foreman on school days to provide homework help to the students. But a major part of the Upward Bound program takes place during the summer months. While many of their friends are relaxing during the vacation from school or are working at summer jobs, Upward Bound students spend six weeks at Columbia College Monday through Friday for extra classes, tutoring, field trips, and career planning.

In some Upward Bound programs around the country, the summer session also includes part-time internships for the participants at local organizations. The students are granted a stipend for their work. In 2007, Columbia College Upward Bounders took internships at the Community TV Network, a media organization dedicated to youth empowerment, Chicago’s CORE Center, an outpatient center for patients with HIV/AIDS and other diseases, and Children’s Memorial Hospital, among others. Budget concerns kept Upward Bound students at Columbia College from taking those internships in summer 2008, however.

The intensive summer program is in large part meant to reproduce the college experience. Students even spend a week living on a nearby campus to get a feel for residential life in academia. Aside from the regular courses on Columbia College’s campus, Upward Bound students have recently visited schools like Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. 

Big Dreams

Katarzyna Krutul, 17, immigrated to Chicago from Poland two years ago, but just joined Upward Bound summer session this year. In Poland, Katarzyna says she did not like studying. “When I came here, I was like, ‘well, I want to study. I want to do something for me. I just want to change something in my life.” For Katarzyna, participating in Upward Bound is about “investing time that I have in something important to me.”

As a freshman, Yesenia was failing her classes at Juarez. “After I joined Upward Bound, my grades went up automatically.” Before deciding to join Upward Bound during her freshman year, Yesenia, 17, says, “I guess I didn’t have anybody that would help me. I didn’t know whom to look for. I was afraid to go talk to my teachers until [Upward Bound staff] encouraged me to go talk to my teachers, get help and then bring all the stuff to tutoring.”

Now a senior, Yesenia is planning to apply to several midwestern universities, and wants to major in biology. “I want to be in a lab coat!” she says. “I always wanted to study cancer, genetics, the cells.”

On to College

There’s no question that the participants in Columbia College’s Upward Bound program are bright, diligent, and motivated to get a higher education. Among Upward Bound students expected to graduate from high school in 2005, 77.3 percent enrolled in a post-secondary education program. In a city like Chicago, where only six out of 100 Chicago public school high school freshmen will get a college degree, a figure like that goes a long way. 

In addition to vigorous academic training, there is also a strong social component to Upward Bound. Kirsch says students “will get to know their Upward Bound peers, and they’ll become a part of a group, a part of an extended family, all of whom want to go to college, so all of whom are working towards bettering their lives.” 


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Upward Bound: The Facts

UPWARD . . . Toward College

Upward Bound students report on their experiences. Summary of a WKCD “College Jam,”  in collaboration with Upward Bound and Knowledge in the Public Interest, August 2008.
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