Madison Cowell of Lamar wasn't seriously considering college before she enrolled in the Upward Bound program at Arkansas Tech University. In fact, the ACT entrance exam did not occupy space on her radar.
"Not at all," said Cowell. "I knew that I had to take it before I graduated, but I didn't know what it was or how to even apply for taking it."
Her life, and her future prospects, are drastically different due to the influence of a federally-funded program that helps high school students with identified class, social and cultural barriers to higher education discover their potential.
"I had friends in (Upward Bound), and they all told me how it had helped them out," said Cowell. "Some of them said it helped them a lot with financial aid and influenced their decision to go to college, and they were now able to because of Upward Bound. I knew it would benefit me, so I decided to join."
Now, as she prepares to begin her senior year at Lamar High School, Cowell has made a 32 on the ACT exam and letters are arriving in the mail from institutions such as Harvard and Yale.
"I was amazed at myself and what I could do," said Cowell, who wants to study biochemistry in college and pursue a career in pharmaceutical engineering. "I did not think I was going to get above a 20 at the time. Opening it up and seeing a 32 was definitely surprising and exhilarating. I was most proud to tell my parents. I want to make a difference and get a further education. I want to continue learning and get a degree."
Students selected for Upward Bound must meet income guidelines as set by the federal government and/or be a potential first-generation college student.
The Upward Bound classic program at ATU serves students from the public high schools in Atkins, Dover, Hector and Lamar. ATU’s Upward Bound math and science program is for public high school students from Danville, Dardanelle, Two Rivers and Western Yell County.
"I probably wouldn't have pushed myself as hard as I did to get to this point, and I'm not sure I would have gone to college," said Cowell when asked where she would be without Upward Bound. "I wasn't thinking about long term. I wasn't thinking about where I was going to go after high school. I was just going to go to work. Now that I've joined Upward Bound and seen what I can accomplish with college, it's definitely influenced me to pursue further education. This past year I've seen that what I thought I could do is definitely not where my bar should be set. I can go a lot further than what I thought I could."
Cowell is one of 120 Upward Bound students from high schools in Johnson, Pope and Yell counties who are living at ATU this summer, attending classes and participating in co-curricular activities, all of which is designed to prepare them for life as a college student. The summer 2019 program began on June 9 and concludes on July 3.
For Mario Mendez of Dardanelle, it's a transition to the life he will live beginning this fall. Mendez is taking summer courses as part of Upward Bound and will begin full-time study toward a degree in Spanish education at ATU in August.
"Being here at Tech and being involved with Upward Bound has showed me that I need grit to be able to strive for what I need," said Mendez. "Not everything is handed to you. You need to work hard and keep going. I've grown and learned to adapt to talking to more people and being more open. Here, we are truly independent and we have to learn things on our own."
Jill Hendricks is the director of Upward Bound programs at Arkansas Tech. Shawna Davis and Annie McNeely serve in the role of target school liaison. Lauren Pipkin is the unit’s administrative assistant.
"They have always been there, and they always care," said Haley Rodriguez, a rising senior at Western Yell County High School and Upward Bound program participant, when asked about the staff. "You can always count on them. You can talk to them about anything. You can ask them for help. It's very important to me to make them proud. I always have this feeling like I have to make someone proud, and making them proud is a great accomplishment."
Rodriguez described overcoming shyness as her greatest achievement through the Upward Bound program.
"I used to not even say a single word to anyone," said Rodriguez, who has a career goal of becoming a veterinarian. "Now, I make the shy people feel welcome and try to get them to talk. It really makes me happy because I know what they are feeling. Getting them to talk and letting them know that someone is going to be there and listen…it's amazing."
Mackenzie Watkins also knows that feeling. A 2019 graduate of Hector High School, she said the Upward Bound program boosted her ability to interact with her peers.
"Before I was in Upward Bound, I was very shy," said Watkins. "(Upward Bound) seems to get you out of your comfort zone by letting you work on group projects and activities. It really opens you up to all kinds of different people and sharing your story with them. (The Upward Bound staff) has been like another parent to me. They've taught me that responsibility is very important, and that when you step from high school into college it is important to be responsible for yourself."
Watkins is the fourth of five sisters. She credits one of her older sisters, Kacy, as influencing her to join Upward Bound. Now, Mackenzie's younger sister, Liberty, is beginning the Upward Bound program as a student at Hector High School.
"It makes me really happy to see (Liberty) in Upward Bound because I know how good of a program it is, and I know how it will help shape her into her future self," said Watkins. "I think it is a great opportunity while you are in high school to prepare you for college. It's a major stepping stone…it was for me, and I think it could be for anyone. I would advise anyone to join if they are trying to step out of their comfort zone and prepare for college."
Watkins is taking summer courses at ATU. She is enrolled to begin her studies toward a nursing degree at Arkansas Tech this fall.
Helping students attain a college degree is the ultimate goal of Upward Bound. Rodriguez said the program meets and exceeds that standard.
"When people hear Upward Bound they think it's just a program where people learn about college and it helps them academically, which is true, but I think it's more than that," said Rodriguez. "It's this once in a lifetime opportunity where you can explore the college, know what you are getting into before you go to college and meet new people. You're not going to have another opportunity to meet people who are academically like you, but in other ways totally different."
Photographed (from left-to-right): Mackenzie Watkins, Mario Mendez, Jerry the Bulldog, Haley Rodriguez and Madison Cowell.