Helping first-generation students succeed at UNG and beyond

Armando Tercero-Escobar never planned to go to college. He intended to get a job after graduating from Gilmer High School.

The Ellijay, Georgia, native also didn’t want to leave home, since his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Plus, his grades started to slip. That is, until members of the Upward Bound Program got Tercero-Escobar back on track.

“They were there for me and made sure that I graduated,” the UNG freshman said. “They helped me with my college applications and scholarships and made sure I had everything I needed. I decided to go to college to make my mother proud and make sure her sacrifices for me weren’t for nothing.”

Helping first-generation students like Tercero-Escobar prepare for and be successful in college is the purpose of Upward Bound. Funded through a $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the program provides tutoring sessions, ACT/SAT and college preparation sessions, career exploration, cultural experiences, and college visits during the academic year. In the summer, students live in the residence halls and attend classes at UNG’s Dahlonega Campus to get the full college experience.

The program is limited to 120 students: 60 from Gilmer High School in Ellijay, Georgia, and 60 from Johnson High School in Gainesville, Georgia. After the first full year in operation, Dr. N. Latrice Richardson, program director of Upward Bound at UNG, said the results are measurable.

Of the 10 Gilmer High students who graduated in spring 2018, eight attend UNG’s Blue Ridge Campus while the other two enrolled at Dalton State. Only freshmen, sophomores and juniors at Johnson High School were enrolled in the Upward Bound Program in fall 2017, so the program will have its first graduating cohort this spring, with several accepted into Georgia colleges.

“I’m encouraged by the successes of our first year and the achievements both programs have experienced in year two of the grant. We are strengthening partnerships in the community and building our capacity to serve students on the UNG campuses in a meaningful way,” Richardson said. “All of the 2018 Upward Bound graduates from Gilmer High are still enrolled in college in the 2019 spring semester.”

UNG freshman Kameron Stone is one of eight graduates at the Blue Ridge Campus. She attributes her success of being a college student to Anna Speessen, the Upward Bound counselor at Gilmer High.

“She was there to answer any questions regarding FAFSA and how everything works,” Stone said. “She put college terms into a way I could understand.”

Her sister, Halee, agreed. Kameron and Halee are two of a set of quintuplets.

“The stress of the process of applying for college in its entirety was definitely lessened, as we were wonderfully guided with knowledgeable advice that made things much more easily understandable and simple,” Halee said.

Upward Bound is not the only UNG program focused on assistance for first-generation students. In 2017, the university was awarded $1.13 million over five years for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. Its purpose is to continually serve 25 high-achieving, low-income, first-generation and/or underrepresented students who want to enroll in graduate school.

The McNair Scholars Program identifies and prepares UNG sophomores, juniors and seniors for post-baccalaureate studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. Each is matched with a faculty member to conduct scholarly research and establish a formalized mentorship, said Iris Royal, program director of the McNair Scholars at UNG.

So far, the program — just like Upward Bound — can tout quantifiable success. A handful of UNG seniors were accepted into graduate-level programs.

Based on these results, Iris Royal said UNG will exceed its milestones. The program’s success is evident in the changes to students, which is the goal.

“When I see a student comes from doubt that they can go to graduate school, and then see them in our office every week filling out applications, or when I see a student who thought they weren’t good enough to go to graduate school, and now they are talking about schools everywhere … it warms my heart to see that,” said Royal, herself a McNair Scholar graduate.

Currently, 25 students are in the McNair Scholars program. While they strive to achieve their graduate school goals, they also give back to Upward Bound.

Thomas Hayes, a McNair Scholar and junior pursuing a degree in computer information systems, was one of the counselors for Upward Bound’s summer program. The 27-year-old from Suwanee, Georgia, said his focus was to keep things in perspective for the high school students.

“I tried to keep them looking at the whole experience and let them know it’s a step-by-step process,” Hayes said. “It’s not one big step to college. There are multiple steps. If you look at each individual step, you won’t get overwhelmed with the path of attending college and graduating.”