Legacy of a Dream
Innovative scholarships, combined with tested federal TRiO programs, are helping first-generation college students close the gap
Philip Binns volunteers at an after-school program of Pillsbury United Communities in North Minneapolis, not far from where he grew up. Photo by Greg Helgeson.
Philip Binns has a clear memory of the day in 2005 that Upward Bound came to his house. He was a ninth grader at North High in Minneapolis. His family had plans to go to the gym together, and that didn’t happen every day. But when Minerva Muñoz knocked, his mother opened the door.
“We were filling out forms and I was thinking, ‘I could be at the gym right now!’” Binns remembers.
Upward Bound never let up. For the next four years, it brought Binns to the University of Minnesota after school at least one day a week—more when his grades slipped. It also allowed him to earn a scholarship called “I Have a Dream” that was put in escrow and would be paid out, year by year, if he became the first in his family to go on to college.
The first two years of “UB” did not look promising. Binns, naturally quiet, preferred to fly under the radar, whether at school or the U.
“I felt like quitting—I actually failed sophomore English,” he admits. “I saw it as a chore. My parents made me do it.”
Through Upward Bound, Binns came to the campus each summer for rigorous classes in English and math, introductory Latin, and ACT prep work. One year the group camped for five days near Ely, Minnesota, canoeing, portaging, and learning to set up and take down a tent. They had no electronics, showers, or mirrors. Binns got to know his UB classmates and himself.
The Dream Scholarship encouraged his parents, too.
“I kept talking to him about the bigger picture,” says his mother, Verna Binns. “It was a huge stepping stone.”
Slowly Binns started thinking about the future. As a little kid, his dream job had been to work at Camp Snoopy; now, sneaking a look at late-night TV while his mom worked two jobs, he noticed that the dad on The Brady Bunch was an architect.
In 2009, Philip Binns entered the University as a Dream Scholar enrolled in TRiO Student Support Services. A whole new world opened up. He explored career ideas, made friends, took racquetball, and used a break to learn Spanish in a three-week program in Mexico. He got an A in public speaking. As part of his First Year Experience course, he played the lead in an adaptation of A Lesson Before Dying.
When Binns declared a youth studies major, he began to volunteer. Over the past three years he has tutored fourth graders in math and high school juniors and seniors in history and English. This year he works with grade-school kids in an after-school program not far from where he grew up.
“They’re curious and honest and they don’t care how you feel about their questions,” Binns says with a smile. “My favorite part is debunking the myths.”
Stay in school, he tells them. Don’t do drugs. Now in his senior year, he’s aiming for graduate school in public health.
Dream for the nation
Upward Bound was the first in a “trio” of innovative efforts that began with the Educational Opportunity Act of 1964 to address the social and cultural barriers to education. (See sidebar.) It arrived at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 1966 and has operated ever since. Collaborating high schools are those with the state’s poorest youth—currently South, North, and Edison high schools in Minneapolis.
TRiO Programs at the University of Minnesota
Today TRiO has eight programs nationally that serve more than 840,000 low-income and first-generation college students and students with disabilities—including more than 15,000 at a total of 29 sites in Minnesota. Each site must apply for funds based on documented need and urgency. The U of M Twin Cities (UMTC) houses three TRiO programs, all in CEHD.
Helps low-income first-generation high school students prepare for and succeed in college
Est. 1964, UMTC in 1966
Enrollment: a total well over a thousand since 1966; currently more than 100 students from three high schools
Graduates apply to any U.S. college
Student Support Services
Supports low-income first-generation college students and students with disabilities during their first two years of college
Est. 1968, UMTC in 1976
Enrollment: 3,800 since 1976; about 270 enrolled in any given year
Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program
Prepares low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented college students for success in graduate school
Established 1986, UMTC in 1991
Enrollment: 440 at UMTC since 1991 in cohorts of 20 per year
Bruce and Sharyn Schelske went to work for Upward Bound when it came to Minnesota, at first part-time in college. Their compassion for students and drive to fulfill the program’s vision soon put them at the national forefront of TRiO program leadership and innovation.
“It was so hard to keep those kids,” says Bruce Schelske. Family instability, responsibility for younger siblings, peer pressure, fear of standing out, and especially the lure of low-paying summer jobs reduced cohort after cohort. When Upward Bound grads made it to college, many lacked the informal network and confidence to stay. The Schelskes and their staff became experts in the forces undermining education and in ways to keep kids in school.
“You see the faces of those who made it, who graduated, who did what they had never dreamed was possible—and then every exhausting thing is worth it,” says Sharyn Schelske.
When a second TRiO program was created to support low-income and first-generation students in college, the Schelskes helped to apply and bring it to Minnesota. TRiO Student Support Services opened at the U in 1976, serving students who enrolled from across the state.
Despite accumulating evidence of lives transformed by TRiO programs, threats of cuts joined the list of battles waged by the staff in the 1980s. A newspaper article about the TRiO programs at the University described their successes, their potential, and their daunting challenges.
Then a pair of allies appeared.
Karen Sternal had read the article about Upward Bound and handed it to her husband, Bill Lahr. He had been following the work of Eugene Lang, a business owner and philanthropist in New York who had created “I Have a Dream” scholarships as an incentive for low-income kids to graduate from high school and then college.
Lahr owned a Minnesota-based family business and was a long-time contributor to causes close to his heart—education chief among them. Now he wanted to do more. Lahr and Sternal liked what they read about Upward Bound at the University of Minnesota.
“Grants for education were being cut,” Sternal says. “By coming forth as an outsider and saying we wanted to give our support, it put Upward Bound in a stronger position to keep or get other funding they needed.”
Lahr and Sternal worked with the University to create the Minnesota “I Have a Dream” Scholarship program for students in Upward Bound, learning from Lang’s program. Taking its name from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the scholarship inspired students to envision a future of their own.
“We had been doing this for 15 years,” Sharyn Schelske recalls, “and it was our dream, too, that we could find a way for kids to complete their degrees and fulfill what Upward Bound was created to do.”
The first scholarships were awarded in 1991. At first, Upward Bound students had to complete applications for a set number of scholarships. But reading their essays, Sternal was stopped cold.
“I saw how hard-working these students had to be just to complete a high school degree,” she says. “I said, ‘All of them deserve the scholarship—there is no way I can be the judge. We have to figure out a different way to do this.’”
Minnesota “I Have a Dream” Scholarship Program
Students in Upward Bound at the University of Minnesota who graduate from high school become Dream Scholars. Wherever they enroll, their Dream Scholarship is put in escrow and paid out as each year of college is completed. A total of 460 Dream Scholarships have been awarded since they were established in 1991.
The scholarship fund was expanded in such a way that any University of Minnesota Upward Bound student who graduated from high school would automatically become a Dream Scholar. Their scholarship would be put in escrow and paid out as they completed each year of college, wherever they enrolled.
A model for closing the achievement gap
Joyce Bell first heard about Upward Bound from a friend in the late 1980s.
“She told me they paid poor kids for good grades,” Bell remembers. “I thought, ‘Well hey, that sounds like me.’”
Unlike Philip Binns, Joyce Bell did not come from a family that could support her academically. School was an escape, and Upward Bound became a lifeline, especially in the summers she spent in and around the U.
“More than anything I needed a place to belong and a place to feel safe,” says Bell.
She didn’t know anyone who had gone to college but, with Upward Bound assistance and the promise of a Dream Scholarship, Bell applied near and far. She attended the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, and then—recruited as a junior into the McNair Scholars graduate school preparation program—she came back to the University of Minnesota for a doctorate in sociology. In one of the most competitive academic job markets ever, Bell was hired at the University of Georgia and then got a tenure-track job in her field at the University of Pittsburgh. She won the Minnesota TRiO Achievers Award in 2008 and a national TRiO Achievers Award in 2011.
Joyce Bell, left, now tenure-track faculty in sociology in Pittsburgh, was recruited into Upward Bound with a Dream Scholarship and later was a McNair Scholar. In 2011 she celebrated a National TRiO Achievers Award with U TRiO leader and mentor Sharyn Schelske. Photo courtesy of Joyce Bell.
Bell has been asked how she did it. Once in a graduate school course, the professor challenged her argument about poverty and education by asking, “What makes you able to do it and not them?” It is a question, she says, driven by the idea of the American dream.
“What I can say without a doubt is that I didn’t have any more drive than most of the people around me, I’m not any smarter, I wasn’t destined to go to college, I didn’t have any magical bootstraps to pull myself up with,” Bell says. “I had intervention. I had Upward Bound and I had McNair. I had people and programs in my life that pointed out opportunity and made it clear how to take advantage of it.”
Bell is ever conscious of the privilege of working in the world of ideas, with the ability to develop research around emerging questions. Despite the pressures and stress, she loves teaching and dedicates time to mentoring first-generation students and students of color.
“That is part of closing the loop that Upward Bound set up,” she says, “and I take that role seriously.”
As a researcher, Bell has looked at the design, methods, and results of the TRiO programs. Even students who participate in Upward Bound and Student Support Services without completing degrees experience significant gains. With data and expertise approaching the 50-year mark, the programs serve as an important foundation in ongoing efforts to address the problem of poverty and the educational achievement gap.
“These programs work!” Bell says. “They are vastly underfunded, but they have the ability to make a significant difference in the lives of students they are able to serve.”
Another strength of Minnesota’s TRiO programs has been its staff. For nearly 40 years, the Schelskes honed methods, kept a lean structure, mentored staff, and adapted to changes in the population they served and the culture at large.
Again and again, they showed legislators, skeptics, and funders the accumulating data and mounting return on investment. Over the years, they played a role in building the strong bipartisan support so essential to the programs’ endurance.
When General College, longtime TRiO base of operations, closed in 2005, they shepherded the programs into a new home within the redesigned College of Education and Human Development in new offices a few blocks away.
U of M TRiO program directors, left to right, Anthony Albecker, McNair Scholars; Amy Kampsen, Student Support Services; and Minerva Muñoz, Upward Bound. Photo by Greg Helgeson.
When the Schelskes retired in 2012, they passed the reins to a new generation of leaders. Minerva Muñoz, who has recruited Philip Binns and scores of other students into Upward Bound, partners with Amy Kampsen in Student Support Services and Anthony Albecker heading McNair. Consistent with TRiO’s commitment to employ a staff that reflects the population served, Muñoz, Kampsen, and Albecker are all first-generation college graduates, and Muñoz and Albecker are TRiO program alumni. In offices on the ground level of Education Sciences, the office is a beehive of activity overlooking the city skyline and the Mississippi River—a connection to the communities from which students come and the world of opportunity beyond the U.
“We are really pleased that we were able to lay a foundation for the next generation and develop a model that they can work with,” says Sharyn Schelske.
Another change came with the loss of Minnesota’s Dream Scholarship champion Bill Lahr, who died in 2004. But Karen Sternal’s commitment to the vision they shared and to Upward Bound students has not wavered.
The next generation
A few years after the Dream Scholarships were established, the Upward Bound staff worked with Lahr and Sternal to create a celebration to recognize the students’ accomplishments and spur them on. It was so successful they have held it each year. Every Dream Celebration is different, but every one produces a colorful outpouring of young energy and joy.
On a long summer evening in 2012, the McNamara Alumni Center served as the backdrop for the 22 newest Dream Scholars—those Upward Bound students fresh out of high school and getting ready to go their separate ways to college—to show and tell the difference their time together has made. Next to them were Dream Scholars in various stages of their college programs and eight who had just reached their goal of graduating from college, with new dreams to describe and explore.
In the audience were high school students still in Upward Bound aspiring to be Dream Scholars, and parents, friends, and staff.
“I have a dream,” one new Dream Scholar said, “of taking my family’s name to college.”
“Upward Bound was my healthy habit,” said another—Ahmed Ahmed Ali, who arrived in Minnesota at age nine without a word of English. “Without those summers in Upward Bound, I would have been brain-dead! UB was my caffeine!”
There were speeches, a skit, a video, laughter, and tears.
Karen Sternal, right, celebrated with Dream Scholars and CEHD dean Jean Quam, left, at the 2012 Dream Celebration. Photo by Ava Wichmann.
“When I attend a Dream ceremony, it is a real private moment to see the students,” Sternal reflects. “They might thank me, but it’s them. They haven’t done this because it was easy!”
What troubles Sternal the most is the unmet need. Upward Bound, she believes, should be in every high school.
“This is like a little pebble, and what we need is a wall!” says Sternal. “As an individual, this is what I can do. As a society, we need to do more. If we don’t have an educated populace, the gulf between us all will just get larger, and that is not healthy for a republic.”
Philip Binns has joined Joyce Bell and many more Dream Scholars envisioning and creating a better future. In addition to his academics and community service, this year he became one of the first co-chairs of TRiO’s new student board.
“Every one of these students makes a difference,” says Muñoz. “It’s our job to make the dream for all of us come true.”
To learn more about TRiO programs at the University of Minnesota, see www.cehd.umn.edu/trio.
Pre-college TRiO students in southern Minnesota are invited to 2013 Minnesota Southern Tier TRiO Day on February 23 at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.