Outside Mitchell Hall’s room 205 stand two tri-fold display boards on top of drab gray file cabinets. Photographs pasted to the boards show students from various ethnic backgrounds, most wearing wide smiles, posing together at Noah’s Ark water park, UW-Whitewater, Six-Flags and Carroll University. The door, always propped open, leads visitors to the shared offices of Upward Bound and the Upward Bound Math & Science pre-college programs.

Video: Shana Wilson

Voices of all tones mesh in an environment of productivity. Some of the same faces from the photographs walk in and out of the office. Two girls with mahogany complexions and bright colored hijabs adorning their round faces come in with backpacks in one hand and signed permission slips in the other. Three Asian boys exchanging laughter and Laotian words walk through to check for their names on a list of students eligible for the next fieldtrip. Most of the students report to the program’s academic advisors, Pakayphet Pakeovilay and Natalia Ornelas.

On this day, Deshawn Brown is working his part-time shift as an office assistant, sitting behind a desk greeting and guiding visitors and students who are going through the same motions he did seven years prior, when he joined UW-Milwaukee’s Upward Bound program during his sophomore year in high school. After graduating from Messmer High School and becoming an alum of the program, Brown is now a full-time student majoring in Photography and Journalism at UW-Milwaukee, on the same campus he spent his high school years coming to.

“Now I’m in my senior year about to graduate which I didn’t think I would make it,” Brown says, “A lot of my friends didn’t even make it to their sophomore year.”

The main requirements to join Upward Bound are to come from a low-income family and/or be a first generation student (a high school student from a family in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree). These criteria are also two of the main obstacles students face in to achieving degrees.

Unlike many other pre-college programs across the nation, for example, Brown University’s precollege program that costs $5,500 to join, Upward Bound is free of cost for its students.

In a 2011 U.S Department of Education Compendium Report following the ‘Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972–2009’, dropout rates of 16 to 24-years-old students who come from low income families are seven times higher than those from families with higher incomes.

According to the statistics on TRiO’s (the federal program that Upward Bound is a part of) website, the growing achievement gap in the U.S. is detrimental to the country’s success. There is a widening gap in educational attainment between America’s highest and lowest income students – despite similar talents and potential. While there are numerous talented and worthy low-income students, relatively few are represented in higher education, particularly at America’s more selective four-year colleges and universities. While nearly 67% of high-income, highly-qualified students enroll in four-year colleges, only 47% of low-income, highly-qualified students enroll.

Upward Bound’s main objective is to enable its students to counteract those statistics by providing them with educational and, occasionally, personal guidance. The goal of the program is to help students succeed in high school and to have them go on to college to graduate with a post-secondary degree. Director of UWM’s Upward Bound Donald Singleton says the progress made by the program since it originated 30 years ago has been impressive.

“Since our first graduating class in 1988, 91% of our students have gone to college and 47% of them have received a post-secondary degree,” Singleton says, “Students who are low-income, first generation graduate from college at a 9% rate, so we are doing five times the national rate.”

Growing up in Chicago and moving to Milwaukee when he was 14 years old, Singleton sees himself in the students in the program. He was a first generation student who was a foster child during high-school, seeing education as his ticket out of poverty.

He applied to one college.

“I was taking the number 20 bus down 16th street during my junior year and I remembering seeing the big Marquette University sign,” Singleton says, “That’s all it was really.”

His fear of failing is what drove him. He didn’t want to be one of those people who dropped out before receiving his post-secondary degree.  Now, he is responsible for the guiding the 80 students currently in the program toward achieving their high school and college diplomas. Singleton has also recently finished his grant-writing in hopes of another five years of funding for the program from the U.S. Department of Education. The grant he wrote five years ago received $2.2 million to fund the last years of students

One of those students is Riverside University High School junior Tyler Lee. He works a part-time job at Hong Kong Express. His favorite part of Upward Bound is the fieldtrips.

“We went on a spring break trip to New York and went to Rutgers University, it really caught my attention,” Lee says, “It really made me feel like there is more out there than just Milwaukee.”

To go on trips, students have to acquire points by attending the program’s tutoring sessions, parent meetings, achieving high grade point averages in school, participating in the Practice ACT test sessions, and other program events. The fieldtrips, ranging from college tours, hotel, and other chaperoned sight-seeing trips across the country, can only be attended by a top number of students who earn enough points.

Lee, and his friends he met through the program, make it a priority to manage getting enough points to go to all of the trips.

“Having a job, attending the program, and going to school gets overwhelming at times,” Lee says, “But I feel like it will all be worth it in the long run.”

He is currently applying to multiple colleges including UWM, and plans to major in Business/marketing in hopes of opening his own chain of grocery stores.


Brown, after graduating in UWM’s Spring class of 2017, plans to find a career where he can travel, capturing photos and sharing stories.

“I know it sounds cliché, but I want to expose what things are happening around our world,” Brown says, “Mostly just something where I can be creative and not sit at a desk.”

Singleton, smiling until his cheeks make his glasses rise from his face, leans back in his office chair. He stacks the 70-page grant proposal he’s worked on since last May on his wooden desk. On the wall spaces throughout the Upward Bound office are hundreds of photos of alumni, of varying ethnicities, wearing caps and gowns, most wearing wide smiles.

“This is why we do it,” Singleton says, “We spend the amount of time you have to write grants and you see the end results and the students enjoying it, that’s what makes it worth it.