FAIRFIELD, CT - Dannielle Wright of Bridgeport says she’s proof that the Upward Bound program at Sacred Heart University helps students not only get accepted into college, but to succeed once they’re there.
A University of Bridgeport freshman working toward a career as a child advocate, corrections officer or other human services profession that provides hands-on care and services to needy populations, Wright, 18, spent all four of her years at Bridgeport’s Central Magnet High School participating in Upward Bound — a federally funded college preparatory program that in the 23 years it’s been at Sacred Heart University has provided academics, tutoring, counseling and cultural and social enrichment to more than 1,500 students.
Thanks to a recent grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the program will this year be able to increase the number of young people it annually serves from 55 to 63. Youths from low-income homes, or who will be the first in their families to attend college, are the focus.
“Upward Bound was a huge learning experience for me,” said Wright. “It meant that sometimes I’d be doing school work while my friends were just hanging out, but it was really important for my future and my success in college right now. Now while some of my classmates are just learning concepts and hearing terms for the first time, I’m already familiar with them. For me, a lot of freshman year so far has been more review, which has let me focus on adjusting to college life and those subjects that are new.”
It’s Upward Bound’s summer session that provides the components Wright is referring to — six intensive weeks of academic classes that range from creative writing and U.S. government to public speaking, chemistry and psychology 101. They are taught by experienced area high school teachers. During the school year, the program meets twice a month on Saturdays, providing workshops on goal setting, SAT preparation, self-esteem and self-defense, alcohol and drug awareness and other topics designed to “whet teens’ appetites for an amazing and productive life beyond high school,” said Carylanne Rice-Ehalt, director of the program.
During the fall and spring college semesters, Sacred Heart students join the program as volunteers, working with Upward Bound students as tutors and mentors.
“The focus of Upward Bound has changed over the years, going from a program focused on keeping kids in high school to one that really prepares them for entry and graduation from college,” Rice-Ehalt said. “Upward Bound today is about opening up teens to new opportunities and experiences and guiding them toward all the many possibilities of life provided by education.
“One of the many benefits of our program is its location at Sacred Heart,” she continued. “It exposes teens to what college is all about. Because they come to Sacred Heart to take summer classes and take part in fall and winter workshops, college isn’t just a concept. It’s a reality. And as part of the program, we make sure we expose them to everything that goes along with it, including the application process and financial aid.”
Savannah Brown, a high senior who’s been involved in Upward Bound since her freshman year, said she wrote, edited and perfected her college application essay with the help of program teachers over the summer. “I have friends at school right now who are struggling to even figure out what they want to write the essays about, and mine is all done,” said Brown, whose older sister also took part in Upward Bound and now attends the University of Connecticut. “I’m not sure yet where I want to go to college, but I know that wherever I go, I’m prepared and will excel. Because of Upward Bound, I have tons of new friends, structure year-round, and my brain never takes a break. My goal is to be a neonatologist and work with premature babies.”
Open to students as early as the summer after they graduate from eighth grade, participants must either live, or attend school, in Bridgeport and be in need of academic support. All participants receive free, year-round bus transportation and, during day-long programs, a full lunch from the Sacred Heart cafeteria. Added program components include college visits, parent workshops and — a particular highlight for both Brown and Wright — enrichment trips to New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and other locations.
“I never would have gone to any of these places without Upward Bound, and they were all incredible,” Wright said. “At first I was mad at my mother for making me come to this program. I wanted to sleep during the summer and hang out with my friends. But then I made so many new friends at Upward Bound and realized that it was helping me think out of the box, get ready for life and that my teachers really cared.”
Statistics say Upward Bound students become more critical and positive thinkers, make better life choices and are four times more likely to earn a college degree. But Rice-Ehalt is quick to point out the benefits that aren’t always so documentable: “I loving seeing kids’ eyes light up when they walk into a Broadway play or see Boston for the first time; when all of a sudden they really see what college is all about and start to get excited about the possibilities of where their lives can take them. Each one of these kids is special to me, and the teachers that I work with feel the same way. All of us are motivated and excited to be part of this program.”
Students interested in learning more about the Upward Bound program at Sacred Heart or attending can speak with their guidance counselor of fill out an online application form.