Central Arizona College wins grant to help low-income and first-generation college students

Jeff Kronenfeld

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A group of students participating in the Central Arizona College Upward Bound program visit the University of Southern California.(Central Arizona College)

By Jeff Kronenfeld / Pinal County, AZ

(Pinal County, AZ) Pinal County’s future got a little brighter in early June when the U.S. Department of Education announced that Central Arizona College would receive $1,488,000 to help low-income students whose parents didn't graduate from college prepare for higher education.

The money comes from a federal Upward Bound grant, the second such award the school has received. Although the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 led to Upward Bound's creation, the program didn't come to CAC until 2017.

The grant funds Upward Bound at CAC for four years, enabling April Ortega, the school’s director of the Upward Bound program, and her team to continue offering students mentoring, academic counseling, assistance with college prep, and enrichment courses.

Classes offered by the program also include subjects such as literature, composition, mathematics, science, and foreign language.

The grant allows CAC’s Upward Bound program to serve 60 students at three Pinal County schools, including Coolidge High School, Vista Grande High School, and Casa Grande Union High School.

Upward Bound was the first of a suite of initiatives known as the Federal TRIO Programs aimed at reducing inequality in the U.S.

“Lyndon B. Johnson had this vision where he wanted students that were underrepresented in higher education to be able to go to college and graduate with degrees and hopefully help fight the war on poverty,” Ortega said.

During the 2021 federal fiscal year, over 70,000 students participated in 966 Upward Bound TRIO projects across the country.

Upon graduating from high school, 86% of Upward Bound participants enrolled in postsecondary institutions, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The national program’s alumni include engineer and former astronaut José Moreno Hernández, ABC News Correspondent John Quiñones, and Viola Davis, an Academy Award-winning actor.

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Student participants in the Central Arizona College Upward Bound program prepare for the door decorating challenge.(Central Arizona College)

Upward Bound at CAC

Upward Bound operates during the school year and summer. CAC’s program is no exception.

During the school year, a staff member visits the participating schools. They meet with students individually to check their academic progress and discuss any socio-emotional issues the youths may be experiencing.

“We're there to help them in high school, so if they are struggling in a math class, then we have tutors for them,” Ortega explained. “We have different programs that can help them be successful because obviously if you're not successful in high school, you're not going to get to college.”

The program also runs workshops at the school on applying for financial aid, planning for college, and learning about potential career paths.

During the hot summer days when school is out, Upward Bound runs a six-week program offering more classes and activities. The CAC’s summer programming includes biology lessons, a college prep class, a global citizen workshop where students can learn another language, and an English 101 class that counts for both high school and college credit.

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Central Arizona College Upward Bound program participant Kyla Hooker holds a smoker's lung.(Central Arizona College)

A student’s perspective

A CAC Upward Bound alumni and current engineering major at ASU also runs a robotics club for the program where students can learn coding and how to work with machines.

For participating students like 17-year-old Kyla Hooker, the summer offerings provide education, entertainment, and the chance to focus on their future.

“I really enjoy the robotics,” Hooker said. “It was super fun, but right now, I'm really enjoying the biology class. The professor, he's very informational, and also, I learned about the college process. At first, it was very intimidating, but we have all these different types of workshops, and it really helped me understand and also see that it's not as intimidating as it seems.”

In addition, the program offers students the chance to prepare for the practical aspects of being first-generation college students. This year during Memorial Day weekend, they visited The University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California.

Participating students also visit in-state schools, including spending a week living in an actual college dorm. While many high schoolers might look forward to life without parental oversight, the prospect of leaving home can be daunting for some first-generation college students.

“I was very, very scared,” Hooker recalled. “I didn't want to get out of the car because my mom wasn't going to help me bring in my stuff. I was very dependent on one of my friends, but unfortunately, he's a boy, so we can't room together, but my roommate, she's really cool. After I got the taste of dorm life, I'm like, this is pretty fun.”

Hooker plans to attend the University of Arizona, where she wants to major in nursing or pre-med. She's currently leaning toward the latter, hoping to become an obstetrician and gynecologist one day.

Looking towards a brighter future

For Hooker and the many other Upward Bound participants, the program is a vital source of support and inspiration.

“This year, I'm really happy because our mentors are former Upward Bound students that are currently enrolled in colleges," Ortega explained. "They're just there to do different team-building activities that we do for students and be like a big brother or big sister to help guide them through the process.”

Two alumni of CAC’s Upward Bound program are expected to graduate with their bachelor’s degrees next year, becoming the first alumni from the school's program to do so. Thanks to the funding provided by the grant, they hopefully won’t be last.

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Jeff is an award-winning freelance journalist covering news, business, science and the arts. His work has been published in Discover Magazine, Vice, the Phoenix New Times and other outlets.

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