For many first-generation and low-income students, simply the idea of attending college can be daunting. The cost of higher education might be prohibitive. The application process can be complicated and overwhelming.
Even with a committed support network, it can all be too much.
“Oftentimes for first-generation students, college is not something that’s expected … It is now starting to be a little bit more like ‘hey, you should go to college’ but it is not as widespread as in more affluent communities,” said Miguel Peralta, director of Wesleyan’s Upward Bound Math-Science program.
The Upward Bound Math-Science program is pulling down those barriers for high school students in Middletown, Meriden, and New Britain, Conn. In 2021, 30 of the 32 students who graduated from the program are moving on to higher education. Twenty-six of those students are bachelor-degree bound. Over 100 students participate in the program in the three towns, with most joining after their first year of high school and staying through graduation.
It’s part of a continued successful trend, with approximately 90 percent of Upward Bound participants over the past five years continuing their education. “This is the level of success we are accustomed to,” Peralta said. “We are trying to help students not just go to college but to thrive there as well.”
“We have had students at Wesleyan who took part in Upward Bound here in the local area (and have done very well here!), and—since it’s a federal program with chapters across the country—we have also had Wesleyan students who took part in Upward Bound programs in their own home areas,” said April Ruiz, dean for academic equity, inclusion, and success. “Upward Bound does a wonderful job helping students to feel informed and empowered as they consider pursuing higher education.”
Wesleyan has had a long and rich history with Upward Bound going back to the program’s inception five decades ago. The program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, helps students who are interested in mathematics and science prepare for college. In addition to an intensive six-week academic summer program that includes math, science, writing, and language training, students are taught financial literacy and other pertinent skills.
In keeping with Wesleyan’s emphasis on the importance of a liberal arts education, students have the opportunity under ordinary circumstances to travel to cultural events, museums, plays, and art exhibits. Students can also do community service. “All of the activities are set up to push students to expand their worldview,” he said.
Peralta is quick to say that the program isn’t just about tutoring, nor do they cherry-pick academic superstars to participate. Students with a wide range of interests and abilities join Upward Bound. Students who are struggling work alongside those who are getting good grades, each bringing their own unique contributions so that they can all be successful.
“Through this work, the staff are able to celebrate their students’ identities, their interests, and their strengths, and they are able to encourage them forward in a way that honors the student authentically,” Ruiz said.
Peralta said that the program’s structure allows his team to take a more personal approach with the students. “We help rising seniors with their college application process. We hand hold as much as we can, and explain things to the students and their parents to ensure that they know what they need to do in order to complete the application. We’ll walk them through the enrollment and financial aid processes,” Peralta said.
For Peralta, a Middletown native, even after a decade at Wesleyan, the job is personal. He graduated from the program in 2003 and went on to the University of Connecticut for his undergraduate work and Central Connecticut State University for graduate school. Upward Bound helped change the trajectory of Peralta’s life, an experience he hopes to share with students.
“I was very similar to most of them. They have pretty good grades. They may have a support system that really wants them to do well. But they may not know how to navigate whether it be the college application process or really, you know, start thinking about what’s next,” Peralta said.
When he hosted the program’s Senior Dinner on June 15, Peralta watched a group of kids celebrate a big step towards a bright future—one much like the step he made some time ago. “The great thing about this is you are able to take a look back and see how far they’ve come and much they’ve grown,” he said.