This past Wednesday, Senator George Mitchell ’54, H’83 spoke to the community to commemorate 50 years of Upward Bound (UB) at Bowdoin. 

A federally funded TRIO program, UB was a result of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” Initiative. Beginning in the summer of 1964, the program was designed to provide low-income, first generation high school students the motivation to attend college and the skills needed to pursue higher education. Nationwide, there are over 900 programs.

To celebrate 50 years of UB, the College had several events, including a talk with Mitchell and a reception with past UB graduates and current UB students. 

In a speech Wednesday night in Pickard Theater, Mitchell talked about the work that UB has done and continues to do. UB graduates from every decade and current UB students attended the event.

“The single most important factor is not talent, they’ve got that. It’s not brain power, they’ve got it, Mitchell said. It is making sure that they have the self esteem, the sense of worth and the sense of being part of a community that enables them to unleash their talents.”

A Comprehensive Program

According to Bridget Mullen, director of UB at Bowdoin, graduates of the program are four times as likely to get their degree by age 25 as peer low-income, first generation students who did not have UB.

UB’s summer program allows students ranging in age from 13 to 19 to spend six weeks on a college campus taking courses in math, science, foreign language and English. Students also get college prep help and receive support from SAT tutors throughout the summer. 107 students participated in the program at Bowdoin this summer, residing in Stowe Hall and Howard Hall.
UB Bowdoin draws students from 11 Maine high schools. Students from Washington County comprise about half the students; a Bowdoin UB counselor is stationed there.

Students have mentors and tutors who provide guidance throughout the six weeks. Not all summer UB staff are part of the Bowdoin community, but several Bowdoin students worked with the program this summer as well as other Bowdoin faculty and staff members. 

The support does not stop at the end of the summer. For the academic program, mentors from the College visit students who have participated in the program at their high schools to check on their academic performance, their study skills, their family and home life, job situations and to set up tutors and other mentors if need be. The counselors usually visit students once a month. 

Graduating seniors also have an opportunity to apply and participate in the Bridge Program. A separate program that involves 10-12 students, Bridge takes place the summer after students graduate and before they enter college. These students live in separate dorms—this summer the students lived in Ladd House—and engage in different courses and activities designed to help them even more for the fall. 

In Maine, there are seven other UB programs, which serve over 700 students. 

Senator George Mitchell on UB

While in the Senate as a senator and the senate majority leader, and after he left the Senate, Mitchell has continued to support the program. 

“I think it is of critical importance, all of us, every American, do what we can to make it possible for programs like this that give opportunity to each child,” he said. 

“In America, nobody should be guaranteed success, but everybody should have a fair chance to succeed,” said Mitchell. “Keep in mind that genius knows no boundary, no language, no religion, no color. It can come from anywhere at any time.”  

Lewiston High School juniors Ilham Mohamed and Zahara Shidad both attended Bowdoin UB this past summer and both praised the program for helping them do better during the academic year as well as providing them with a network of people to turn to during the academic year. 

“The classes I took in the summer were intro classes to this year’s classes so they really helped me,” said Mohamed. 

Echoing the message of Mitchell’s talk, Mohamed said, “I have good grades now and I understand everything and I’m not behind. I have a lot of friends now so if anything happens I can talk to them.”

The Program Today 

The changes in the UB program over the past 50 years are limited to modest adjustments in academics and student population.

“[The core curriculum] is a little bit more prescribed by the federal government than it has been,” Mullen said, “[but] within that I think we have a lot of leeway.”

Pam Bryer, Director of Laboratories at Bowdoin, has been part of the summer program for the past 31 years, teaching biology courses.

“We [now] have specific classes on college and taking the SATs,” Bryer said. “But the focus is still the same: on giving the opportunity to students who might not have the opportunity to go to college...just giving them a leg up.”

Through the academic program, these resources will continue until the student’s high school graduation, including financial aid counseling in the student’s senior year. In the coming months, the UB staff will be going back into their target high school communities to try to interest students in applying to the program.

“It’s a unique population [of students] to reach,” Mullen said. “They’re not necessarily…the students who are at risk of dropping out of high school [nor] are [they] already headed off to college...They’re kind of the quiet middle.”

This quiet middle has changed much over the years in response to fluctuations in the Maine population.

“Our student population has become more diverse in many ways,” Mullen said. “For example, in Lewiston, there are many families that have resettled from East Africa…Lewiston itself has become a more diverse community and our student population reflects that.

Steven Colin ’17 worked as the activities coordinator this summer at UB.  

“For me, it was a completely different perspective,” Colin said. “I came from a Latino/African-American neighborhood [in Los Angeles, California], so to see a different perspective in that poverty doesn’t really know the color of skin was very fulfilling for me.”

Parker Hayes ’17 also worked at Bowdoin UB this summer, working as a TA and RA.

“I felt like I could really be a part of their learning process, [to] really see their progress they would make from the beginning to the end,” Hayes said.

The beginning for Hayes started much earlier than this summer. In high school, Hayes, a Maine native, was a UB participant at the University of Southern Maine.

“It really helped me a lot to understand the college process and what I would need to do to be able to get into a school like this,” Hayes said.

Hayes spoke highly of the feedback he got on his college essay and the experience of living on a college campus away from home before attending college.

“I felt like I could give back to the program that I thought had done a lot for me,” Hayes said.

The Future and Financial Aid 

Though UB helps students to prepare for college and apply for financial aid and scholarships, the program cannot aid students in actually paying for college. With the rising cost of college in recent years, more students are going to two year colleges and planning to transfer than in the past, according to Mullen.

“It troubles me because students’ aspirations are for four years and they’re feeling financially pressed to take the two year path,” Mullen said. “That gap between financial aid and college has widened so much that we have many students that have gotten into four year college, [but the financial aid is not there, as it would have been in the past].”

When financial aid offers come in senior year, UB helps students and their families to advocate for the money that they need.

“We have a system in many, many cases where that extra step of advocacy loosens up more money from the institution,” Mullen said.

With the occasion of the 50th anniversary, Bowdoin UB is fundraising to establish an account of emergency funds for students through Facebook and other means. The fundraising will continue through the year.

“Frequently, just really basic needs—[books, eyeglasses, transportation to a college interview]—are hurdles,” Mullen said. “Our goal is $50,000 for the 50th…we’ve reached over $15,000 already.”

UB has not done private funding before, since the federal grant mainly funds the program. The cost per student for the six week academic session as well as academic year outreach is $4,200. Bowdoin College also helps to fund the program by subsidizing room and board costs and offering full health benefits and vacation time to UB staff employees.

“At other institutions, UB programs really struggle with these costs [particularly room and board],” Mullen said. “There’s no way Upward Bound could be thriving the way it is if we didn’t get that subsidy.”

At the end of 2016, UB will have to apply for a new grant, part of a four to five year cycle.
“Even though we’ve had it for 50 years, it’s a competitive process,” Mullen said. “I know an Upward Bound that had been as old as we were and in the last cycle got defunded.”

When UB makes their rounds at their target high schools in the upcoming months, they will determine what can be strengthened. Financial aid remains one of the primary issues.

“People say more people are going to college and completing college,” Mullen said. “Well, more people are going to college and completing college in the upper income quartile. That’s why 50 years later Upward Bound is a federal investment that still has to happen.”

“I love what I do, but I wish Upward Bound wasn’t needed,” Mullen said. 

Correction (September 18, 2015 at 11:20 a.m.): The article incorrectly stated the Mitchell was a graduate of Upward Bound himself. That information has been removed from the article.