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In this July 16, 2014 photo, Bintou Camara, 16, left, smiles during her English class at an Upward Bound program, which serves as a pathway to college for students from low-income families, in New York. That level of performance has earned Upward Bound strong bipartisan support in Congress, yet the national program nonetheless faces fiscal challenges because of the broader turmoil on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
At 50, Upward Bound still opens pathway to college
First Published Jul 26 2014 11:38 am • Last Updated Jul 26 2014 03:29 pm

Nervous but determined, the 15-year-old boy walked into a conference room in Columbus, Ohio, for a fateful interview. If it went well, perhaps he’d have a chance to be the first member of his impoverished family to attend college.

That was 34 years ago, but Wil Haygood — the renowned journalist and author whose writing inspired the film "The Butler" — says he remembers it "like it was yesterday."

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"I knew in my heart and soul that this was a monumental moment for little Wil Haygood," he recalled.

At stake was a place in Upward Bound — founded as an experimental program in 1964 as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty with a goal of helping students from low-income families get a college education.

A few weeks after his interview, Haygood received a letter accepting him in the Upward Bound college prep program taking place that summer of 1970 on the campus of Ohio Dominican University. "The college wasn’t but a few miles from our housing project, but as a poor kid, you never set foot there," Haygood said. "It was as if I had been lifted up and taken to an oasis."

Haygood flourished during three summers in the federally funded program and credits the professors there — and their tough-love approach — with girding him to succeed in college.

"They didn’t allow us to make excuses because we were black or poor," he said. "They said when you get to college, it will be 10 times harder."

Haygood went on to thrive at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, graduating in 1976 and returning last year to give the commencement speech.

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Upward Bound. It served 2,061 participants at 17 locations in 1965; last year it served about 76,000 students at more than 1,000 locations in 50 states.

In all, more than 2 million people have participated — studying English literature and composition, math and science, and getting practical advice on college admissions. Upward Bound alumni include Oprah Winfrey, actresses Viola Davis and Angela Bassett, ABC News correspondent John Quinones, and Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile.

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"It’s a 50-year-old program that continues to pay back — giving us hope and teaching so many lessons along the way," said Maureen Hoyler, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education. The nonprofit council, formed in 1981, represents more than 1,000 colleges and agencies that have supported Upward Bound and its affiliated programs.

One of the keys to Upward Bound’s success is that its local programs are conducted at college campuses, whether it’s after-school and weekend sessions during the school year or residential summer programs.

"The fact that we get to live on campus is really cool — it gives you an idea of what college is like," said Ruthy Pierre, a 16-year-old New Yorker attending a second summer of Upward Bound. Her program is run by John Jay College of Criminal Justice and hosted during the summer by the College of Mount Saint Vincent on a verdant campus in the Bronx overlooking the Hudson River.

Ruthy, of American and Haitian descent, lives with her single mom and will be a junior this fall at Information Technology High School in Queens. She aspires to be a lawyer but hasn’t ruled out a mid-career switch to being a chef.

Upward Bound, she says, "opens up opportunities we wouldn’t get otherwise."

Among her 56 classmates in the six-week summer program was Corinne Lopez, 15, who hopes for a career combining her interests in graphic arts and forensic science. Her parents came to the U.S. from South America with college educations, but have struggled to find commensurate jobs in New York; Corinne’s father works as a doorman in Manhattan.

"It’s been hard for them," Corrine said. "I’ve had everything given to me. I have to return the favor — graduate, become successful and help them in the future."

The summer program’s schedule is intensive, with classes and study halls filling most of the day on Mondays through Thursdays before the students go home for three-day weekends. Karen Texeira — who’s directed the John Jay program for 25 years — makes sure to include a few outings, such as this summer’s foray to Broadway to see "Motown: The Musical."

She encourages the students to have fun amid all the hard work, though some rules are strictly enforced. There’s automatic expulsion, for example, for any boy or girl found in the dorm rooms reserved for the opposite sex.

Texeira’s second-in-command is counselor Omar Abdullah, 32, who grew up in Harlem, was an Upward Bound student himself in the late 1990s, and is now pursuing a master’s degree in public administration.

"Before I did Upward Bound, I was really shy — too shy to place an order at McDonald’s," he said. "At Upward Bound, you had to break out of that shell."

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