The director, Ms. Hill Marsh’s words echoed time and again for me. “I believe in divine intervention,” she would say. According to her, we had a calling – to develop these young men and women to become college graduates and to live as productive citizens.
This summer, I worked for Upward Bound at Le Moyne College, a small Jesuit school located in Syracuse, NY. The program gives low-income high school students (potential first generation college students) better opportunities to attend college. The program strikes a personal chord for me. Thirty years ago, my mother and her siblings were enrolled in the same program; they all graduated from college. They had immigrated to the US from Taiwan only a few years prior, and their parents had not even graduated from high school. Because my grandparents did not speak English, the program gave their children an academic foundation they might not have otherwise had.
I had many responsibilities. Not only was I tasked as a teaching assistant, but I also resided with the students in the Le Moyne dormitories and served as a resident adviser (RA) and personal adviser. I worked alongside six other college students, who were also responsible for the students’ academic and personal growth. We collaborated on the students’ curriculum and harnessed our skills to make the summer a fulfilling experience.
I can recall helping one of my students with his biology homework, and then subsequently assisting him with his calisthenics. Other nights, I gave the students advice on proper MLA citation and then we would discuss their personal struggles with love, life and the unknowable future.
As the assistant to the history and economics teacher, Mr. Little, I was assigned to work on improving the students’ research and writing skills in preparation for college. We worked with primary and secondary sources and researched historical figures ranging from Copernicus to Gandhi. My position was aptly titled Tutor Counselor.
Although the time put into academic preparation was rigorous and demanding, the program never failed to enrich the personal character of its students. For one of our trips, we went to a nature reserve called Orenda Springs. The name Orenda is derived from an Iroquois term designated to the power of everything in the universe, encompassing the sun, planets, moon, stars, plants, animals, and the weather’s ability to give people strength to undertake mighty deeds. It was here that the ideas of teamwork and inner strength were given hearty tests.
I chaperoned the juniors and seniors, who were allowed to use the zip-lines and other acrobatic equipment. Because we were able to build stronger relationships with the students, the Orenda Springs staff encouraged us to partake in the activities. In one of the climbing challenges called the catwalk, I climbed to the top of a tree that soared over the preserve to meet one of my students on a log that rested between us. It was barely a few inches in length. Afterwards, we were suspended upside down on the log while being belayed by two students and staff.
In addition, we had Sunday dinners in which the students were required to dress up. The students were taught proper table etiquette and assisted the dining staff in preparing the dinner. The director often asked one of my students to start the meal by saying grace. It was a gesture of warmth and sought to engender closeness rather than alienation. The dinner was also a time to look back on the preceding weeks and to prepare for the next.
The Upward Bound program employs individuals whose personal stories are relevant to their students. The program afforded my mother and her younger siblings the ability to thrive in all of life’s avenues. My background not only gave me the ability to relate to my students, but the desire to do so as well. Through this and my relationship with the Upward Bound staff, I learned to give and receive advice and criticism, whether good or bad, valid or invalid. I learned to maintain professionalism in a time when much rested on patience and good judgment. But most of all, I wanted my students to become aware of the potential they could reach through this program as shown by my mother’s own success.
Overall, my experience was challenging but rewarding. At times I was greatly discouraged by how unmotivated some of the students were, but there were also many who excelled brilliantly. Throughout my tenure as Tutor Counselor I improved on my leadership of the classroom and dormitory and how to deal with teenagers who are good, those who are disobedient, and how to counsel the ones with personal difficulties. Academically and behaviorally, it was a constant battle between disciplining them and sympathizing with their backgrounds. However, it was well worth it in the end, only to see the students meet their potential.