Fairfield’s Upward Bound program boosts students from low-income families and first-generation college applicants

Fairfield’s Upward Bound program boosts students from low-income families and first-generation college applicants

by Nina M. Riccio MA’09

Julie Charleston ’13 wanted to become a nurse. But it wasn’t going to be easy. As a student of Haitian descent attending Harding High School in Bridgeport, the pathway to college wouldn’t necessarily fall into place for her as it would for students from more affluent neighborhoods. She needed to keep her grades up, get the right advice, and find help negotiating financial aid.

That’s where Fairfield University’s Upward Bound program came in. The federally funded program is designed to help ambitious students from low income families or potential first-generation college students with the tools they need to make the leap.

Today, Charleston works in Bridgeport Hospital’s pulmonary medicine unit, where she is a telemetry nurse caring for those on ventilators.

“Without Upward Bound I might have gone to a community college, but I’d probably still be trying to finish my nursing degree. I don’t know that I would have pushed myself enough,” Charleston said.

Charleston’s story is echoed by scores of young men and women over the last 30 years who have gone on to successful careers, thanks to this program that helps students “push beyond barriers” by supporting them academically, and providing counseling, life skills workshops, and cultural experiences — all at no cost to the students and their families.

Serving 80 students at Fairfield annually, Upward Bound accepts students from the three Bridgeport public high schools — Bassick, Harding, and Central. Students typically enter the program in ninth grade and commit to coming to the University for 20 Saturday classes every year, from October through May, for the next four years.

There is also a six-week, residential summer program where they get homework help, SAT tutoring, field trips, and campus tours. Teachers in the program include Fairfield University professors, such as Drs. Jill Deupi (art history), Bryan Crandall (writing), and Bogusia Skudrzyk (counselor education), as well as Bridgeport public school teachers. In the summer, Fairfield University students serve as counselors.

Rony Delva, Upward Bound program director, has been overseeing the program at Fairfield University for 11 years, and frequently visits the Bridgeport schools to recruit students. “What I’m really looking for is motivation and commitment,” he said. “This is not a remedial program. It’s college prep, and our goal is to have every one of these kids get into college, stay in college, and graduate.” And he succeeds.

Liz Szabo ’17 is one of those success stories. As she approached the end of her senior year at Harding High School, she said, “Upward Bound helped me fill out the application and walk through the financial aid process…And I got to live on campus in the summer.” Szabo is now a first year biology major at Fairfield with her sights set on medical school. “I never could have navigated as well without it.”

Will Johnson, now Fairfield’s director of Student Diversity Programs, encountered Upward Bound when he worked in the Office of Undergraduate Admission. He thought more of those students should be choosing Fairfield when the time came to decide on a college.

“I thought then that the University needed to make a more concerted effort to recruit these students. We used the pre-college workshop that is held each summer as one tool to attract Upward Bound students. We would go over items, including the application process with its confusing language, financial aid information, and navigating a college fair,” he said.

The result was an uptick in the number of Upward Bound students applying to Fairfield.

“As a high school student, you have some fear of what college is going to be like. Our experience through Upward Bound made it more comfortable,” said Karim Kharbouch ’17, a Bassick High School graduate. “There really was very little transition.” Kharbouch is a mechanical engineering student with an interest in aerospace. His goal is to get a Fairfield University imaging satellite into orbit before he graduates. “It’s my way of giving back to Fairfield. I don’t know how else to give back except for engineering and science.”

Launching a satellite may sound like a lofty ideal, but setting goals and understanding time management are important parts of Upward Bound.

“In my first few weeks here [at Fairfield] I struggled with time management,” admitted Luis Loor ’17, an engineering major whose family emigrated from Ecuador in 2006. “But I got through it by setting goals. It’s a very Upward Bound thing. We’re always setting goals and breaking work down into chunks of time.”

While the vast majority of Upward Bound graduates go on to succeed in college (the program tracks them), not every student is a success story. The discipline and commitment required to come on Saturdays and during the summer when friends are on vacation can be daunting, but makes all the difference.

Delva recalled one who enrolled, but had a lot of personal problems and didn’t take full advantage of what the program offered. “As much as we tried, he just didn’t put in the time. He didn’t see himself as a success, just didn’t have that vision of himself,” noted Delva. “Going to college requires a certain mindset. You have to believe in it. That’s why we need more resources. We are always looking for mentors, because it’s not just about academics, it’s about counseling, too.”

Julie Charleston ’13 was one of those true believers. With the dream of becoming a nurse, she enrolled in the health magnet program at Harding High School. When she found out about Upward Bound, she knew she wanted to participate.

“I knew it was where I wanted to be, so I kind of became Will Johnson’s stalker,” she said with a laugh. With her excellent grades, Charleston received several grants and scholarships and had no problem getting into Fairfield University’s nursing program.

“I learned through Upward Bound that you don’t let setbacks hold you back. You use them to launch forward,” she said.

“I had been taught that I’m responsible for my own education. It wasn’t easy, but I knew that people go into teaching because they’re trying to help you. I had learned to see my professors almost as peers. But it doesn’t work if you don’t want it for yourself.”

Charleston plans to transition to Bridgeport Hospital’s ICU and work for two years, then return to Fairfield to get a doctorate in nurse anesthesia. “I hope to be a Stag forever!” she said.