The Whatcom Community College Orca mascot high-fives students and staff during WCC’s preview day event for local high school students in December 2017. The community college is heading up a new program, helping to prepare local students for education after high school and targeting families without such background. (Courtesy photo/Whatcom Community College)

WCC awarded $1.3 million in Upward Bound federal grant; focus is on three local districts

WHATCOM — The path of education after high school graduation looks different for various students. For some, pursuing a degree can appear difficult and not an option. This is particularly true for those whose parents didn’t attend college.

“With first-generation students, they don’t have anyone who has been through the process that they can turn to,” said Fernando Morado Sanchez, Upward Bound project program director. “It’s going to be a scary, unknown place and hard for them to formulate what they should be thinking about.”

Whatcom Community College is receiving almost $1.3 million in an Upward Bound grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help local low-income high school students be potentially the first in their family to attend college. 

“Many of Whatcom’s students are the first in their families to attend college,” said WCC president Kathi Hiyane-Brown in a press release. “This grant leverages the college’s efforts to ensure these students are successful with their dreams of a college education.”

The TRIO grant is a first for the local community college, which features the only Upward Bound in northwest Washington.

The new Whatcom County program, begun in 2017, focuses on 60 students from the Nooksack, Ferndale and Mount Baker school districts. 

These areas were singled out as needing extra help, due to low-income adult education levels and low college enrollment rates. These districts also have above-average high school dropout rates and student-to-counselor ratios, when compared to Washington state averages.

“Sixty students might not seem like a lot when we talk about need and how big the county is,” Sanchez said. “But at the end of the day, for those 60 students the program will be transformative.” 

The hope is that once these students arrive at college, they’re fully prepared financially, academically and socially, Sanchez said, “to know what to expect and to be ready for that type of experience.”

It was an education-based federal program, similar to the one being implemented at WCC, that helped place Sanchez himself on a path to accomplishment. Sanchez was a first-generation college student at the University of Washington and knows first-hand what it’s like.

“It’s not that I didn’t want a better future — I didn’t know what existed out there,” Sanchez said. “That’s where the value of the Upward Bound program comes in — it acts as a part of the family, providing support and providing information [to students] so they can (attend college).”

Already in the works are Saturday workshops, tutoring, mentoring, individualized student-education planning and milestone checks.

And during the summer, those in grades 9-11 of the student group will attend a six-week summer program on the WCC campus.

Those who are high school seniors will attend their own summer bridge program, meant to be a “link” from high school to the beginnings of college. The seniors will receive intensive advising and take a tuition-free two-credit college course. Additional help will be given with college course selection, financial literacy, and financial aid and college applications. 

Other student opportunities include college campus visits and cultural events, giving some students their first glimpse inside museums or science centers.

“Instead of us telling them what (college) is like, we give them a chance to experience it for themselves,” Sanchez said.

He stresses that the program will not preach a one-size-fits-all approach to education, instead focusing on what students envision themselves doing for a living and what kind of lifestyle they picture in their future. This also applies to what type of education, whether it be a community college, university or trade school, students plan to pursue.

“Not all college students are the same,” Sanchez said. “We want to support students so they can find their way and find what a college experience will be like and should be like based on them.”

A large portion of the program will be spent “demystifying” beliefs about paying for college. “The myth is that it’s really expensive, but it doesn’t have to be,” Sanchez said. Support will be offered with securing college financing through grants and financial aid.

Students who go on to attend a post-secondary education option also break a cycle, Sanchez said, thus impacting future family generations.

Students born to parents who attended college are more likely to pursue college themselves. “We might really be providing a lot of support to students in the long run and going to make a huge impact on multiple generations.”

To qualify for the program, students must be enrolled in a participating school district, be eligible for their school’s free or reduced-price lunch program and/or be a prospective first-generation college student.

“I think a lot of these kids have the potential to be successful at college and have thoroughly thought about going to college, but it’s such a foreign thing it doesn’t seem real,” Sanchez said. “They don’t know where to start or how to do it. This will help.”

For more information, visit http://whatcom.edu/student-services/funding-support-programs/upward-bound.