Matt Henson and Ethan Cloud
WISE — Trailed by his sidekick, 7-year-old Ethan Cloud, 16-year-old Matt Henson of Coeburn recently steered a knowing path through a maze of hallways of Zehmer Hall at The University of Virginia's College at Wise en route to his English literature class, a class that just happens to be taught by Ethan's mother, Hope Cloud.
Henson's trek traces countless other footfalls at the college blazed by 46 years worth of like minded high school students from Wise and Dickenson counties. Here, in the heart of Virginia's coal mining country, a vestige of the late Lyndon Johnson's 'War on Poverty' yet thrives.
Constantly refreshed by the influx of youth, the federal 'Upward Bound' program at UVa-Wise eyes nearly a half century of kids following a rigorous trail in a quest to achieve whatever lofty dreams and goals they may harbor.
A rising senior at Eastside High School in Coeburn who turns 17 in August, Henson is in his fourth and final year of 'Upward Bound' hosted by the college. In that time he has earned at least a freshman year's worth of college credits.
"I have a lot," he said. "I can't even count 'em up. Eighteen or 24. Maybe more. I do know the math and sciences are all pretty much in the bag."
Not bad for a kid who doesn't even begin his senior year in high school until August. Even better, at least for him personally, is his growth as a person during his time in 'Upward Bound.'
"It's a whole lot of fun. The academics are a challenge, but that can be fun, too, in a way. But for me, I wasn't very socially open," he said. "Because of this program I've got rid of my social awkwardness. Kids who come here and do this, you can be who you are. You don't care about silly things that don't really matter any more. I'm just — I don't know — I'm just not socially awkward any more, and that's helped me more than just about anything."
Teresa Adkins, the college's director of the program, said 'Upward Bound' is designed as an academic pre-college program for first generation, low income 9th- through 12th-grade students.
For six weeks each summer the participating students — there is a limit of 80 at UVa-Wise — are immersed in English literature, math, science and a foreign language. For freshly graduated high school seniors, the summer coursework is six credit hours in what is called a "Bridge Program" to get them off on the right foot in college work.
All other lower grade students take preparation classes for upcoming high school coursework tailored to Virginia's Standards of Learning (SOL) requirements. Three days a week are devoted to classwork and two days to project classes such as robotics, science forensics, international culinary, creative writing, drama, political science and/or finance.
Dual enrollment is also a part of the program. Participating students must take at least one dual enrollment class each term of high school. The college level courses enable students to earn college credits while in high school.
Community service is also part of 'Upward Bound.' Adkins said current rules require two thirds of the students enrolled in the UVa-Wise program must be low income, first generation students -- meaning their parents did not attend college -- and no more than one-third must be either low income or first generation.
"Sometimes those kids haven't the advantages other kids have. These kids stay on campus (each summer) and are immersed in life skills and study. They will also have jobs on or off campus as part of the program," she said.
"We have 85 percent of our seniors who do go on to college, and 55 percent earn either an associate's degree (at nearby Mountain Empire Community College) or a four-year baccalaureate. Most of the kids we have either attend MECC or here after they graduate from high school."
Many go even further, she said. The UVa-Wise 'Upward Bound' program has produced students who have earned master's or even Ph.D. degrees.
The students get to go home on weekends during the six week summer on campus program, but Adkins and her cohorts seek to immerse them in social settings during the evenings while on campus.
"A lot of things some of our students have never been exposed to. Even though we live right next to Kentucky, some have never been to Kentucky. Some have never been to Kingsport. They've never stayed in a hotel. They've never been to a restaurant where you have to order," she said.
"We have college tours. This year we're taking them to Emory & Henry. We take them to places like the Barter Theatre, and last week we went to the Powell Valley Project. And we've taken them to the Appalachian African American Culture Center in Pennington Gap. Those folks are very nice and give the kids a very interesting presentation."
There is always a trip at the end of every summer term as well. Adkins said budget cuts have shrunk the options somewhat in recent years but in the past there have been excursions as far as New York City. This year's trip will be Pigeon Forge.
"I think it's a good program," Adkins said, now 16 years at the UVa-Wise 'Upward Bound' helm. "It's quite successful. Our kids must maintain at least a 3.1 (grade point average while still in high school) and if they go below that, we offer tutoring either online or in person. We monitor each one at least once a week every week while they're in high school."
Besides coursework, field trips and special projects, "everything is a learning experience" for students, Adkins said, including living in a college dorm to college cafeteria dining. By the way, the fare served at the UVa-Wise dining hall is locally famous for being incomparably fabulous.
But that's another story.
The 'Upward Bound' program at UVa-Wise is a "very successful program," Adkins said. "It helps the kids get a head start in so many ways, not just for college but in their lives. It enriches their lives. It helps them to go outside their surroundings, to realize there is a big world out there. For them, a better career and a better life might happen because of this program."
The program helps participating students pay for dual enrollment classes, and pays for eventual college entrance exams. The payoff is a path upward and beyond, though, with education as a launch pad.
"They are great kids to be around," said Adkins. "They've got so much of that youthful energy! They are so much fun to be around you sure can get so tired by the end of the week that you're glad to see them go home for the weekend. But, that's a wonderful tired for us to be."