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Upward Bound is a federally-funded program that aims to provide academic and support services to high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The program assists students as they navigate through high school with the ultimate goal of preparing them for college. Although over a thousand Upward Bound programs exist throughout the country, one of the greatest is located in Searcy at Harding University.
“I believe what sets our program apart is our commitment to the holistic student as well as our passionate pursuit of relationship,” says Stephanie O’Brian, Director of Upward Bound at Harding University. “Academics are a key element to what we provide, of course,” O’Brian states, “But we go so far beyond academics. Our program is like a family—we truly do life together. We talk about the big things, the little things, and everything in between.”
O’Brian, also a licensed counselor, recognizes that in order for students to truly thrive and meet their potential in the classroom, they have to be able to handle things outside the classroom. “How could I ever expect my students to focus on the ACT or do well on class projects if their personal life isn’t okay?” O’Brian remarked. For this reason, the program helps provide counseling services to the students and helps to connect them to other needs—whether it be additional tutoring, connections to resources for food, vouchers, etc.
The program is also known for being highly selective. Harding University Upward Bound can only serve 65 students, according to their Department of Education TRIO grant. These students are selected from Riverview, White County Central, and Bald Knob High Schools in White County and Augusta and McCrory High Schools in Woodruff County. “I cry every year,” noted O’Brian. “Narrowing down the large number of applicants to the few we can accept each year is grueling. I truly believe in our program and how it can change the course of a student’s life.”
The program typically recruits freshmen, although they will occasionally admit a sophomore. Once accepted, a student is an Upward Bound student until they go to college. “By the time my students graduate, I know them. I know their strengths, their weaknesses, and have been blessed by the ability to witness their flourishing through high school,” O’Brian commented. “Let’s just say that I absolutely have to wear waterproof mascara to all graduations… I am a mess!”
The success of the Upward Bound program goes far beyond O’Brian’s words. The Harding University Upward Bound Class of 2023 had 100% of their graduating seniors begin college this fall. To add to that impressive statistic, the seniors were offered over $2 million in grants and scholarships. “I could brag on my kids all day, but let’s be real, stats like that do the bragging for them,” smiled O’Brian.
What are all of the elements for such a successful program? According to O’Brian, there are many! “We definitely don’t do it alone! My key staff is just three people—myself, my Academic Coordinator, and my Services Coordinator.” Those three staff spearhead efforts to help the students throughout the entire year, alongside Harding University students and others in the community who help support the program.
“We are really blessed for multiple reasons,” remarked O’Brian. “We are so grateful to be at Harding. The community here is giving by nature, and we have been in awe at how much the university, as well as the faculty and staff, have rallied around our program and helped to support us.”
Not only is the program’s location beneficial, but the schools partnered with are a bonus as well. “I do not know what I would do if we did not have such incredible and cooperative schools to work with. During COVID, a lot of Upward Bound programs across the country struggled to get access to their students,” recalled O’Brian. “Thankfully, our schools welcomed us with open arms. We had to get creative, of course, but there was never a time we couldn’t access our kids. That was such a gift.”
Local businesses have also supported the program. Most recently, Daisy’s Lunchbox, Papa John’s in Searcy, Wild Sweet Williams, Burrito Day, and Searcy’s Chick-Fil-A all partner with the program during their Summer Academy program—a six-week intensive academy where students like on the university campus for five weeks to experience a college-like schedule and then take a cultural enrichment trip the sixth week.
“Summer Academy is my favorite part of the job!” exclaimed O’Brian. “We get to see our students overcome some difficult obstacles and grow in their confidence as they prove to themselves that they are capable of doing hard things.” The students partake in rigorous academics as well as multiple social activities which mirror a college experience.
In addition to Summer Academy, the program sets up its success through many components. The students come to Harding’s campus at least 13 Saturdays throughout the academic year. During these Saturdays, students are tutored, attend workshops, partake in ACT Prep, and have mentoring opportunities. Each week during the academic year, the program’s Academic Coordinator also visits all five target schools to check in on the students as well as the staff at the schools.
“We lay eyes on our students every single week,” O’Brian stated. “I want to know how my kids are doing—not just in school, but in all areas of their life.” This perspective is one that O’Brian mentions a lot, especially in how she refers to the students as “her kids.” “It isn’t just me!” laughed O’Brian, “My staff and I really love our students and view them as our kids. I think we are successful because this is so much more than a job to us—it is a mission and a way of life.”
“There is a lot of flack given to teenagers nowadays. I get it. But I want people to know that there are incredibly bright, wildly resilient, delightfully thoughtful teens out there who are truly taking the time to invest in themselves, their own future, and ultimately all of our futures. O’Brian is confident that our future leaders can be found among her students.
“I just wish that there was a way to duplicate what we do to the masses,” noted O’Brian. “I think the world would be a drastically different place if everyone had people who they love and respected enough to receive their challenges and trust their encouragement. I know that my staff and I cannot change the world as a whole or the United States or even Arkansas, but I am confident we can make a difference in our local communities. That is what motivates us.”
“If everyone took the time to really invest in the teenagers around them—to listen to them, help them, guide them—I think we could be living in a much better place a few years from now,” declared O’Brian. “After all, nothing changes if nothing changes.”
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