It was a reunion much like others of the “You haven’t changed a bit” and “Whatever happened to old so-and-so” variety—but with a twist.
Attendees of the 30 year American Indian/CU Upward Bound Banquet and Reunion at the University of Colorado (CU) July 29 were survivors of what a program founder only half-jokingly calls “torture.”
“Oh, yes—we tortured them,” said Rick Williams, Oglala Lakota, one of the program’s initiators, as he described to Indian Country Today Media Network a program intensive in its academic performance goals but also characterized by a lot of support. “We had very high academic expectations of them, but at the same time they were in an environment where people cared about them every minute.”
David Sanders, Oglala Lakota, director of the CU Upward Bound program, said participants, who numbered 87 this year, are disadvantaged and/or first-generation college students who may be academically gifted and who generally come from Native American communities.
The federally funded program—started in Boulder in 1981—brings high school students to the CU campus in summer for six weeks of intensive study, Sanders said. The students are encouraged to stay in the program until high school graduation, after which their academic progress is tracked for six years.
Although not exclusively a Native American program, recruitment in Native areas almost guarantees that the “vast majority” of students will be Indian, he said. The participants are from reservation communities that range from those in the Southwest to Plains areas and both coasts.
One of the former students, Tanaya Winder, Duckwater Shoshone/Southern Ute, is now an accomplished writer who is collaborating with poet and author Joy Harjo on Soul Talk, Song Language: Conversations with Joy Harjo, scheduled for publication in October by Wesleyan University Press. Winder has also published poetry in a number of journals.
“I’d like to think of myself as one of the success stories of Upward Bound,” she said, noting that she attended the summer program for three years in high school and, “in large part because of my time with this program, I was able to attend Stanford University where I graduated in 2008 with a B.A. in English.
“As a student I learned about the importance of dreaming and having goals. Each of us had a future that was bright and absolutely possible. I took my first creative writing class here at Upward Bound and now I’m a writer. I owe that to Upward Bound.”
Winder, who was one of the speakers at the reunion banquet, said “Upward Bound was a family that we created. While we were here we found a supportive network of friends, peers, resident advisors and the directors—everyone offered something.”
She later was a resident advisor herself, then an Upward Bound instructor, and finally assistant director, in a process when “each year and role taught me something new.”
Williams, who is president of the American Indian College Fund, noted the achievements of other Upward Bound graduates, including Rick Hill, chairman of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin until August 11 when newly elected members will be inaugurated. He also served as chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association. Williams also mentioned Annabelle Allison, who is the Navajo tribal liaison in the Office of Tribal Support at the Centers for Disease Control.
Williams recalled in his keynote address at the banquet, “We tortured them academically, but we loved them—we created high expectations and we were wildly successful.”
For students there were three expectations, he said: “We expect you to go to college. We expect you to get a degree. Finally, we expect you to go back and help your people.” He added that “about every single one of them (graduates) is working for their tribe.”
Williams said the program “tried to find the best teachers who really cared about our students.” They were required to have high expectations, to provide academic support in and out of the classroom, and to “care about them like they’re your own children.”
Looking back over the years of working with Upward Bound, Williams said he has never forgotten the moments in which parents entrusted their children to him and the program.