Ramapo’s Upward Bound Program supports disadvantaged high schoolers

Since 1995, Ramapo has offered the Upward Bound Math Science Program to assist low-income high schoolers and prospective first-generation college students from Paterson, N.J. It is a federally-funded grant that originates from the Federal TRIO Programs launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty. The goal of TRIO, which has expanded to encompass eight programs, is to help disadvantaged young people receive an education equal to their peers.

“I’ve always had an intuition for how students learn, and I’ve always been very concerned and interested in how students learn in science,” said Dr. Sandra Suárez. She took over as the director in 2012 after her predecessor, Dr. Carol Frishberg, suggested she would fill the role well. “Once you get started, it’s very hard to leave. You get attached to the kids, the purpose and the goal of the program. You really want to see them succeed.”

Selected students participate from freshman year until their graduation and are offered a variety of free assistive programs. During the academic year, services include weekly tutoring sessions, preparatory courses for standardized tests, Saturday visits to Ramapo’s campus where faculty guide science laboratory exercises and an annual field trip to visit several college campuses.

The UMass basketball game was one of the highlights of the college tour. Photo submitted by Dr. Sandra Suárez.

This year, the field trip ran Nov. 10-12 with stops including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Amherst College, the University of New Haven, Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The group ate in the college dining halls, attended a UMass men’s basketball game and had special visits from admissions officers.

“Whenever they can get the college tour that isn’t the canned tour that everyone else gets, it makes a huge difference,” Suárez said. “They don’t need to know how the meal plan works and what the dorms look like as much as they need to know what the support services are going to be for them when they get there.”

Za’Hir Stevenson, a former program participant and current Ramapo senior, is now a staunch Upward Bound volunteer. “My experience during the trip was nostalgic…I did everything I could to make [the students’] experience so much more enjoyable… Them having an amazing time, made me have an amazing time.”

Upward Bound also offers a six-week long summer program held on Ramapo’s campus, with students living in the dorms Sunday-Friday. School days last from 9:20 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Thursday with trips every Friday and evening activities ranging from swimming lessons to cooking. It also includes seminars on topics such as financial literacy and career development.

“They give up their whole summer to do more school work because they’re that committed to getting themselves ahead,” Suárez said.

Her proudest accomplishment from managing Upward Bound is implementing a framework in the summer curriculum that promotes six character development themes and six academic themes to help students handle challenges related to their disadvantaged statuses. Suárez acknowledged Upward Bound cannot ensure students who have only ever had access to poor resources catch up to their peers academically, but implanting skills and virtues such as responsibility, self-advocacy and acceptance can propel them to keep going.

“It’s less about the material… it’s more about: can they not quit? Can they learn to persevere?” she said. “That’s what is going to propel them to do well in college.”

The proof is in the statistics and the testimonials. Suárez estimated there are about 1,000 alumni. About 90% have attended college, and the majority go for free because they are encouraged to complete the FAFSA and apply for scholarships. On average, about 60% graduate from college within six years. Nationally, only 14% of low-income and 20% of first-generation college students graduate.

Program graduates have attended renowned institutions such as Yale, Barnard, Dartmouth, Stanford and Columbia University. On average, 17% have chosen Ramapo for good reasons.

“Ramapo definitely offers within the state of New Jersey one of the best if not the best bang for the buck… They have a support network, they know us here, they know where to go for help.”

– Dr. Sandra Suárez

Stevenson came for that exact reason. “I was already familiar with the campus because of Upward Bound and I knew that if I needed anything, then Dr. Suárez was a walk away.”

“I [wanted to] show other high school students from Paterson that they can become anything they want,” he said. “During my time in the program, I was blessed to have an amazing counselor… so I wanted to be that same guy to other kids.”

Ramapo students who are interested in assisting Upward Bound can email Suárez at ssuarez@ramapo.edu to inquire about community service opportunities and paid positions as summer tutors and counselors.



Featured photo submitted by Dr. Sandra Suárez.