Interview Series: CU Boulder Upward Bound Program

Meghan with her students

Meghan Byrne, a University of Colorado at Boulder Alumnus, teaches at Peak to Peak, a nationally ranked charter school in Lafayette, CO. During the summer she teaches Native American students in the Upward Bound program at CU Boulder. As a Federal TRIO Program, Upward Bound provides services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Upward Bound program hosted by the University of Colorado gives  eighty high school students located on or near Native American reservations or communities an opportunity to experience a college atmosphere before graduating from high school. Throughout a six-week summer course, students live in the dorms, attend daily study halls, and take five courses in math, laboratory science, composition, literature, and foreign language. Aside from academics, CU Upward Bound enriches the students’ cultural consciousness by providing weekend trips to museums, operas, plays, and amusement parks. The program also emphasizes team building exercises such as baseball and football games, camping trips, and hikes through the Boulder Foothills.

Mac Bishop: How do students get selected for the program?

Meghan Byrne:  Our director, Dave, spends the school year traveling to different parts of the country to recruit potential Upward Bound students. Among the thirteen targeted communities, most of our students come from the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico, and the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota. Since students apply to be part of the program, all of the students who are selected want to be there, and want to spend their summer learning and meeting new people. We have parents who push their children to leave the reservation  community to attend the program, but we also have students who recognize the value and opportunity of Upward Bound and proactively apply for the program themselves.

Mac Bishop: What subject do you teach?

Meghan Byrne: When I began teaching for Upward Bound I started as an Instructor’s Assistant for the Native American Literature course. The following summer I became co-instructor for the same class, as well as Instructor’s Assistant to the Native American Studies course. Both of these classes are offered to second year Upward Bound students, or rising juniors.

In the literature class we use a course reader that is a conglomeration of poetry, historical accounts, and prose written by Native Americans. All of the works of poetry and prose address political, social, and personal topics, which launch discussions of Native American culture, history, and students’ personal experiences. The Native American Studies course is formatted through a Navajo-inspired circular way of thinking in which students connect past issues and historical events to the present, as well as figure out ways to cope with and progress through the emotionally distressing material.

Mac Bishop: Besides academics and simulating a college experience, what other objectives does Upward Bound achieve?

Meghan Byrne: Inside the classroom I’ve found that academics — or at least the NA Literature and Studies courses — give students the opportunity to voice their own experiences on reservations and being Native American. Outside of academics I’ve found that Upward Bound provides students with a sense of safety, trust, and family. Though there is a large emphasis on school work, what Upward Bound does well is balancing and pairing academics with fun. Although it is the job of the Resident Advisers, what you find is that all the of the Instructors participate in weekend activities and in team-building games. The involvement of the instructors and students is testament to the genuine and strong bond that is formed between every individual in the program. The objectives, then, transform into community building where students who graduate from the program remain in contact, even if they are on opposite sides of the country. Upward Bound is also good at boosting the confidence of each student by helping them identify their strengths and building on them, whether it is in an academic subject or in an extracurricular activity.

Mac Bishop: What type of stories do students share? Do you have any specific examples?

Meghan Byrne: We hear all sorts of stories from students. Given the sense of security students feel at the program, a lot of students feel comfortable sharing very personal and emotional stories. Our students come from adverse situations where they are touched by issues occurring on or outside reservations we read about in the news (gambling, alcohol, emotional abuse, etc.). But the way the students express themselves and their stories is notable because they seem to have an insight that allows them to learn from their own mistakes and the mistakes of others, as well as see the light in tough situations — a quality a lot of teenagers need to grow into/seem to lack. We also hear stories about the differences in tribal differences, for example, how the Navajos circular way of thinking and speaking may differ from the Lumbee tradition.

Mac Bishop: How do the different tribes associate with each other?

Meghan Byrne: Most summers there aren’t any riffs between students of different tribes. The only conflict you might find between students will be during the first week of the program when students don’t know each other and feel vulnerable being away from home and in a different environment. This is when you might feel tension between tribes. For example, students from the Lumbee tribe may be slightly ostracized from other students because the Lumbees are not federally recognized and are not given their own reservation. Given this situation, snap judgments can be made against the Lumbees who tend to identify themselves first as Christians, then as Southerners, and then as Native Americans. Other students from reservations or from families who raise them as distinctly Native American feel as though they cannot relate to each other. However, the slight animosity never lasts any longer than a week because students get to know one another and find that they have more in common than they initially thought. They also learn the significance of working together and the power of reaching out and building friendships. By the end of the program, students form very close relationships where tribe identification is only relevant in learning from one another.

Mac Bishop: Why do you enjoy this program?

Meghan Byrne: I love this program for the same reason I love teaching: the genuine relationships formed between my students and myself. I also love watching students grow during the short amount of time and seeing them build trust in each other and within themselves. But it isn’t just the students who grow. I find that I learn so much about Native American history, culture, and literature, as well as invaluable lessons from students and co-workers. Each summer I feel charged from this program and deeply inspired. I think the flexibility of the program contributes to my inspiration since I am allowed to be creative in my lesson designs and execution, while receiving support from the administration to creatively reach the students in the forms they are most susceptible to.

Mac Bishop: How does the Upward Bound teaching experience differ from the charter school?

Meghan Byrne: I do find that the charter school is fully supportive of my creativity and the students are just as open to it. In both the charter school and Upward Bound, I have to earn the trust from my students, but the biggest difference is the vulnerability of Upward Bound students who feel an immediate gratefulness for their teachers and an extreme trust in teachers to help them succeed inside and outside academics. In Upward Bound I also get to spend a lot more time with students since I see them in class and in a two-hour study hall every night, as well as during weekend activities. Because I have a smaller number of students, I grow a lot closer to them and in a shorter amount of time.

Mac Bishop: That’s all for now. Thank you so much!

A big thanks to Meghan for taking part in this interview. Such sincere, stimulating, and inspiring responses! I have to get out to CU and visit while this program is in session.

If you have any questions about the program, email me at mac@nativex.com and I’ll forward them to Meghan.

I’ll close with a quote from an Upward Bound Student:

“This summer was amazing. I’ve never had so much fun and done so many things in one summer. This program prepared me for my tenth grade year of high school and for many years to come. It helped me decide on what college that I wanted to attend the most, and it helped me personally. I met a lot of great people that I will never forget.”  –Freshman Student, Lumbee, Purnell Swett High School, Pembroke, North Carolina

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