Degree of Opportunity
Outreach and support programs help students achieve
their college dreams
by Mary Abowd
Kham Vang remembers those first lonely days in 1989 after his family
pulled up roots from their native Laos and resettled in California.
Then 4 years old, Vang spoke no English and found himself in a classroom
in rural Oroville where he knew no one and couldn’t understand
a word from his chattering, inquisitive classmates.
When he thinks back on it, his gaze falls to his lap. “It
felt terrible,” he recalls.
Now, at 19, Vang is a sophomore biological sciences
major at California State University, Chico, a soft-spoken computer
whiz who plans on going to medical school and becoming a doctor.
How he was able to come so far had a great deal to do with his parents,
Hmong refugees who could not read or write but knew that if their
12 children were to have any future in their new country, a college
education had to be a part of it.
Vang’s progress also had to do with a program the family had
heard about called Upward Bound, a federally funded initiative that
could help their children realize a college education. Upward Bound
reaches out to low-income high school students whose parents never
went to college and prepares them for post-secondary educational
success. The Vangs learned that the program was offered at their
local high school through CSU, Chico, and they promptly enrolled
their oldest sons. When Kham, their sixth child, finished his freshman
year of high school, he joined the program, too.
Making dreams happen
Upward Bound is one of several federal- and state-funded programs
found at CSU, Chico that assist hundreds of students annually. For
low-income and first-generation college-bound students, these programs
offer invaluable academic development and support, and often help
them establish a better sense of their abilities and a belief in
Vang’s intensive three-year commitment with Upward Bound would
put him on a life path far beyond his parents’ wildest dreams.
During the academic year, Upward Bound staff work closely with individual
students, meeting them at their high schools for tutoring and other
college prep activities. During the summer, its some 200 participants
descend on the CSU, Chico campus for a rigorous six-week residential
camp it is not. The program has students up at 7 am and going until
11 pm. Their day is packed with academic classes, internships, lectures,
and community service activities.
“They follow a schedule that would exhaust most people,”
says Upward Bound’s director, Dave Ferguson. “It’s
primarily because they’re trying to make up for lost time.”
Ferguson says students get high school credits for the college-prep
classes they take, and that undoubtedly plays a role in their success.
They are also exposed to cultural experiences they may miss out
on in high school. “You meet so many people from all different
walks of life—East Indian, African American, Laotian,”
says 22-year-old senior Iesha Valencia, a child development major
and president of Upward Bound’s alumni association.
Since 1998, 39 percent of Upward Bound participants have been Asian,
31 percent have been Latino, and 20 percent have been White. Spanning
six counties, the program has boasted a 100-percent graduation rate
for the past 15 years. Of those, 97 percent have gone on to college.
Vang, who was accepted by UC Berkeley and UC Davis before deciding
on CSU, Chico, explains it this way: “The students have to
have the motivation and the determination. Upward Bound provides
the resources and information. Both of these things combined took
me to where I am today.”
An act of Congress
Created under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, Upward
Bound is one of three programs originally established by Congress
to help low-income students not only enter college but also graduate
and pursue careers. Two other programs that aid students in similar
circumstances quickly followed: Educational Talent Search, which
is more group-oriented and serves students in the 6th through 12th
grades, and Student Support Services, a program that helps first-generation
college students succeed once they’re on campus.
The three were originally dubbed the “TRIO Programs,”
a 1960s-era War on Poverty initiative intended to help the poor
overcome barriers to higher education. Over the years, additional
programs were added under the banner of “TRIO,” including
the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, which
prepares disadvantaged college students to pursue graduate studies.
Part of the reason the programs have held steady over nearly 40
years is because the original mission—to help the economically
disadvantaged regardless of racial or ethnic background—is
as pertinent today as it was then. “In this age of Prop 187
and anti-affirmative action, one of the things that has allowed
the TRIO programs to succeed and continue is that it’s never
been race-based; it’s class-based,” says Allan Bee,
director of the Educational Talent Search Program at CSU, Chico.
Two-thirds of TRIO Program participants must come from households
with taxable incomes of less than $28,275 for a family of four,
where neither parent holds a baccalaureate degree. However, Upward
Bound statistics for 2004 show that the mean taxable income for
a family of six was a mere $4,957 for their participants.
The programs serve a variety of racial and ethnic groups, including
Hmong, Laotian, Mien, Punjabi, Latino, Native American, African
American, and White. While the economic need is clearly there, program
administrators say that recruitment is sometimes made difficult
by parents who espouse conservative or traditional cultural beliefs.
“We have a lot of different cultures in the program,”
notes Bee, “and in some of those cultures, education isn’t
valued—especially for some of our female participants. It’s
an issue our advisers address all the time.”
Road to success
Diana Parra-Villaseñor, Talent Search’s assistant
director, knows just how hard overcoming those barriers can be.
Born and raised on a dairy ranch in Gridley, Parra-Villaseñor
says it was inconceivable for her parents to imagine a child of
theirs going to college—especially their only daughter. But
when a schoolmate told her about Upward Bound, she begged her parents
to let her join. They eventually relented, allowing her to spend
the summer after her sophomore year in CSU, Chico’s residential
“It was amazing,” Parra-Villaseñor says of the
experience. “I thought, ‘Wow, I could be in college.’
And I started picturing myself there.”
Then her parents, who did not approve of teenage dating, saw photographs
from an Upward Bound co-ed dance and wouldn’t allow their
daughter to return to the program. Parra-Villaseñor chuckles
about it now, saying she refused to give up and continued to receive
unofficial help from Upward Bound advisers. In 1993, she graduated
from CSU, Chico with a degree in sociology.
When she encounters similar attitudes from parents while recruiting
for Educational Talent Search, Parra-Villaseñor refers to
her own life experience. “I explain the importance of [their
children] having a career that they enjoy as opposed to working
in the fields,” she says.
When 22-year-old senior Yolanda Salazar’s parents allowed
her to attend the university, but refused to let her live away from
home, Parra-Villaseñor was there for her, says Salazar, a
Talent Search alum and a psychology and Spanish major from Oroville.
“I talked to her many times freshman year when I wanted to
move to Chico,” says Salazar. “I told her ‘My
dad doesn’t want me to live in Chico; he thinks I’m
going to get pregnant.’ She related a lot. I hung in there,
thanks to her.”
The Educational Talent Search program, which began at CSU, Chico
in 1990, currently serves 824 students from 23 schools in six counties.
Every month, program advisers visit participating schools and present
workshops on topics such as study skills and cultural awareness.
High school seniors receive guidance on the college application
process. Students also visit college campuses and attend leadership
conferences. Bee says that of the 160 high school students the program
graduates each year, all but a few go on to some form of post-secondary
A third TRIO program, Student Support Services, helps students
once they get to college. The program’s coordinator, Michael
Tokuno, calls this continuity the “pipeline of support.”
The program focuses on first-year students whose parents never went
to college, and accepts about 160 of them per year.
“We talk to them about what happens the first day and what
classes are like,” he says. Then those students take courses
like communication studies and multicultural and gender studies,
which, along with other forms of academic support, help them get
a leg up on college life. They do so in collaboration with the Educational
Opportunity Program, a state-funded program open only to California
residents that strives to retain and graduate low-income, first-generation
Tokuno says his program hires supplemental instructors to attend
certain classes with students, then meet with them in small groups
afterward to review course content. Very often it’s “students
teaching students,” he says of the collaborative learning
environment this creates. Instructors also help students build academic
skills such as note taking, outlining, and test taking.
By all accounts, the support and supplemental instruction are all
most disadvantaged students need to do just as well as their peers,
according to Tokuno. “In statistical studies, we match right
up,” says Tokuno. “Our students actually are doing as
well as or, in some instances, better than the general population
of our campus.” Additionally, federal statistics show that
students who participate in the Student Support Services program
are more than twice as likely to stay in college than those from
similar backgrounds who did not participate in the program.
This is all the more impressive considering the obstacles many participants
must overcome to get to college. “You hear these horror stories
of the inner cities where you get beat up for studying,” says
Tokuno. “We’ve got kids who are coming from gangs, kids
who had to work to help the family out, so they missed school and
didn’t get the grades because they worked 30, 40 hours a week.”
But Tokuno says grade point average is only part of the equation.
What the program strives for is to help students develop a belief
in themselves and their abilities. “Part of what we do here
is work with the students to develop that inner self and spirit,”
While TRIO programs are prevalent at colleges and universities
across the nation, CSU, Chico also hosts other programs with similar
missions. In 1997, the College of Business developed a program to
recruit and retain a diverse student population pursuing degrees
in business. The Business Resource Center is funded through individual
and corporate donations.
“Collectively, we’ve had a 100-percent increase in Native
Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics studying business since
the BRC was established,” says Gary McMahon, the center’s
Headed by a multicultural student board of directors, the center
concentrates on personal ethics, academic and professional goals,
and leadership responsibilities, and places an emphasis on community
service. This comes in handy when seniors apply for jobs. “Many
students later say it was their Business Resource Center activities
that the recruiters showed the most interest in during their interviews,”
The Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) Program,
which is state and privately funded, actively recruits underrepresented
and educationally disadvantaged students in the areas of engineering,
computer science, and engineering technology to attend CSU, Chico.
MESA consists of four program components, including the MESA Schools
Program (MSP) for K–12 students and the MESA Engineering Program
(MEP) for university-level engineering and computer science students.
High school and community college students who demonstrate potential
are presented with incentives that include guaranteed campus housing.
Once they arrive, they receive tutoring, supplemental instruction,
and financial help, including the chance to apply for a piece of
an $800,000 National Science Foundation scholarship fund.
MEP helped launch Abel Huerta, who graduated in 1993 with a degree
in civil engineering, into a high-profile career as a resident engineer
in the Highway Construction Projects for Caltrans.
The only one in his large family to go to college (he’s the
youngest of eight children), Huerta says MEP’s emphasis on
job training and his exposure to summer internships at Caltrans
helped him leverage his current position. He also values the program’s
emphasis on problem solving and group dynamics.
“In the professional world, you have to be proactive and assertive,”
he says. “I have to deal with the public, with other functional
units … with regulatory agencies. The list goes on and on.
If you don’t have those skills, it would be very difficult.”
Director Paul Villegas says MEP, which serves 125 students annually,
has sometimes used the “red carpet treatment” to recruit
talented minority students like Huerta to Chico. And he has not
been sorry. He rattles off a list of the program’s successful
participants, like senior Dominique Ralph from Los Angeles who,
during her first semester, was the top student in her class in electrical
and computer engineering and has been on the dean’s list every
semester since. Or 2004 graduate Mandaris Moore, a dean’s
list regular, who obtained internships with PG&E and Apple Computer,
and upon graduation had his pick of corporate jobs.
The successes and positive experiences inspire outreach program
participants to give back to the programs. Last summer Iesha Valencia
lived in the dorms to supervise, mentor, and befriend a new crop
of Upward Bound students.
“I want to reach out to high school students as I was reached
out to,” says Valencia. “Sometimes that’s all
people need—that hand to help them up, that opportunity to
About the author
Mary Abowd is a former associate editor of Chicago magazine.
Her work has appeared in The Chicago Reporter, the Chicago
Sun-Times, The Progressive, and other publications. Now living
in Chico, she was awarded a 2004 George Washington Williams Fellowship
from the Independent Press Association in San Francisco.