Every five years, Central competes with colleges and universities across America for a federal grant to help high school students dream big about education. And for five decades, Central has won a grant in every competition and hosted more than 2,000 south central Iowa students for Upward Bound. This year marks the program’s 50th anniversary at Central.
“Central has always had a commitment to community engagement and being part of the bigger picture in south central Iowa,” says Louise Esveld ’74, director of pre-college programs. “And the people who work in Upward Bound are extraordinarily committed.” The program has adapted constantly over its long history at Central — and preserved many beloved traditions. Student learning is now more rigorous than ever, says Esveld, and Central’s goals for the program are ambitious. “We’ve built on the program foundation, and we’ve taken it into the 21st century,” Esveld says.
Established by the Educational Opportunity Act of 1964, Upward Bound was the nation’s first college access and retention program. A successful experiment, it became the first of seven federal programs grown from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Former dean of students Marjorie Giles helped bring Upward Bound to Central in 1966. Ed Banfield became program director in 1967 and remained more than 30 years. His wife, Mary Jane, joined him as assistant director in 1979. “Ed and Mary Jane are the king and queen of Upward Bound,” says Matt Diehl ’87, Student Support Services program coordinator. “They really built the program.”
In 1998, Central hired Esveld to direct Upward Bound. She was completing her Ph.D. at the same time and expected to spend just a few years in the position. Now, 18 years later, Esveld continues to lead the program and says Upward Bound offers more than anyone can ask from a career. “We are in the business of creating dreams,” she says.
Upward Bound invites disadvantaged high school students to explore their possibilities for higher education. Participants prepare for college — and learn to dream about that future — through classes, relationships and fun opportunities to build on their strengths.
Many students become the first in their families to attend college. The program helps break the cycle of poverty, Esveld says, because when one student goes to college, brothers, sisters, cousins — even parents — often follow. These students go on to higher-paying jobs and contribute more to their communities.
Central’s participating schools include East, North and Lincoln high schools in Des Moines, Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont High School, Oskaloosa High School and Pella High School. Upward Bound students meet throughout the year to learn study skills, financial literacy and more for their future. And each summer, students spend two weeks in community-based activities with Central coordinators, then live on campus for four weeks of study and fun.
The program is designed to provide a rich, college-like experience on Central’s campus. “If students can’t see themselves in college, if they can’t imagine that future, they’re not going there,” Esveld says.
Central’s Upward Bound team cannot recruit for the college, but they help students explore the best possible options for their interests. Many Upward Bound graduates have chosen Central through the decades. “We certainly love it when we have students come here,” Esveld says, “and we do have some amazing students. Many of them do very well here.”
Joe Sample ’92 studied psychology at Central after participating in Upward Bound — and took his education further than he ever expected. “My experience in Central’s Upward Bound program basically changed my future,” he says. “Without that exposure, I never would have believed it was possible.”
After graduating from Central, Sample went on to earn a Master of Public Administration degree from Drake University and an M.A. in bioethics and health policy from Loyola Chicago. “Like so many other people, I took these tests about what jobs fit you,” Sample says, “and mine came back with factory, maintenance worker. Not that there’s anything wrong with that work, but I didn’t think it was a good fit. Without Upward Bound, I would have underestimated my abilities.”
Sample is now executive director of Heritage Area Agency on Aging. In addition to his full-time work, he’s completing a Ph.D. in human development and family studies from Iowa State. “It all goes back to Upward Bound,” he says. “I’m pushing myself, and I’m open to wherever this path takes me.”
Heather Burr Isaacson ’97 says Upward Bound shaped her life significantly, too. “I think Upward Bound was just as influential on me as my parents,” she says. “It showed me I had the potential to graduate from college, to be successful and have the life I wanted. That developing time in your life can be tough, and Upward Bound at Central gives you a place to feel loved, to feel believed in.”
The program’s success depends on relationships, Esveld says, especially through Central coordinators’ efforts to build connections. “I can’t give enough credit for the work they do with students,” says Esveld of her team. “They work really hard and forge amazing, supportive relationships with these kids.”
Those relationships made Central feel like home, says Isaacson. “I had some amazing mentors who led to me attending Central College,” she says. “I knew there were people there who cared about me, and I already had a relationship with them. It felt like home already before I even started as a student.”
Upward Bound also forges powerful connections between students. “The way it connects you, it’s visceral, emotional,” says Sample. “So many of my lifelong friends are people I only knew through those summers, but I’ve kept a relationship with them for many years.”
For Central students, Upward Bound also provides special leadership opportunities. Students can serve as tutor-counselors (TCs) during Upward Bound’s four weeks on campus. “We have a lot of TCs say it’s the single most important experience of their college career,” Esveld says.
During the summer program, TCs lead groups of 12 students in fun and focused activities. Their role is part counseling, part motivating, part big brother/ big sister relationships that give students a safe place to open up.
Serving as a TC helped Kathy Sikkema ’84 decide what to do after graduating from Central — and helped prepare her for future roles: researcher, teacher and psychologist. Sikkema is now professor of clinical psychology and global health at Duke University and says serving with Upward Bound was key to her career trajectory.
“Looking back, Upward Bound was one of my first exposures to diversity,” says Sikkema. “I grew up on a small Midwestern farm. Now I work all over the world. At Upward Bound, those ‘low income, high potential’ kids brought a wide range of interesting issues and experiences.”
Billy Kirby ’00 also relished his time as a TC. “That was my favorite job I’ve ever had in my life,” he says. Kirby participated in Upward Bound as a high school student and TC, then became program coordinator at Central 2002-05.
“I got to walk in the footsteps of some greats,” Kirby says. “Years later, I’m still learning how important some of those lessons were. I always say, ‘It’s the Upward Bound in me’ — those little things you do to show a genuine desire to connect with people. I do that with everybody I see, and I picked that up at Upward Bound.”
Isaacson also counts herself privileged to have experienced both sides of the program. After participating in Upward Bound, she found more great friends and mentors during summers as a TC. “If I could do that job for the rest of my life, that’s what I wanted to do,” she says. “And I managed to find work very similar to that in my career — to work with kids who need caring adults to help propel them to the next level.”
Isaacson now directs Dreamer Academy with I Have a Dream Foundation in Des Moines. She and Kirby, Dreamer Academy program manager, are helping inspire Findley Elementary School students to pursue higher education.
Kirby and Isaacson are also community partners for Central now. Invited by Dreamer Academy, the college recently adopted Findley third graders to help create a college- and career-going culture.
“I have never been prouder to be a Central College graduate,” Isaacson says. “I’m grateful for the experience I got to have, and I’m really happy to help provide that for future college students through the work we’re doing right now.”
Kirby believes programs like Upward Bound and Dreamer Academy prevent an attitude that asks, “Why do I have to learn this?” “If you can get to kids early enough and show them that education really opens doors, hopefully they never ask the question,” says Kirby. “Even if it’s not your best subject or favorite class, you’re learning something and it’ll give you access to the next opportunity.”
Many of Central’s other Upward Bound alumni are also inspired to give back. Joel Schutte ’92, assistant principal at Southeast Polk High School, says he is grateful for the program’s influence on his life.
“Like many Upward Bound students, I did not have very good role models in my life for positive life choices, particularly in regards to post-secondary goals,” says Schutte. “I have dedicated my entire career to helping students from challenging backgrounds. I absolutely would not be where I am today without the great folks of Upward Bound. I’ll never be able to thank them enough.”