It was a dark day in the office of the University of Maine at Presque Isle Upward Bound program when the staff learned that the U.S. Department of Education would not read its grant applications for five years worth of funding because they contained two charts that were not properly spaced.
But if there is a silver lining in the midst of adversity, it is the flood of support for Upward Bound unleashed by the news that the applications were removed from consideration because of the formatting error — support that may have broad impact.
A letter from all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, urging her to allow the applications to be read and scored, began a wave of letters from hundreds of friends and alums of the program, attesting to the life-changing effects of its college-preparatory services for high school students from low-income families.
With programs at both UMPI and the University of Maine at Fort Kent, Upward Bound provides high school students who have college potential but limited resources with year-round programs to prepare them academically and help them navigate the process of applying, and obtaining financial aid, for college. The program has served more than 2,000 county students since 1980, and currently serves 129 students each year.
Seeking annual funding of more than $600,000, the northern Maine applications were among more than 40 across the nation disqualified from the pool of more than 1,600.
“We received more than 1,800 letters in a week,” said Salvadore Portera Jr. of Bangor, a 2007-10 participant in the UMPI program, who coordinated the letter-writing campaign. Now a community organizer for the Maine People’s Alliance, Portera traveled to Presque Isle April 25 to mail the first 1,200 letters at a press conference at the local post office.
“Upward Bound has been, for 37 years, the lighthouse in the storm guiding children from across Aroostook County to brighter futures and better lives,” he told those gathered to watch him mail the letters. “I left home Jan. 9, 2010, wearing half of a shirt. The other half had been torn off as I tried to both literally and figuratively flee the circumstances into which I had been born. I ran out into a cold Maine night, and Upward Bound was my lighthouse.”
The program helped him find housing on the UMPI campus and enabled him to earn 30 college credits as a high school student so he could enroll in college as a sophomore. He graduated in 2012 with a degree in political science and is “doing what I love,” working for a non-profit where he can help people of all ages.
“I can state categorically that without a program like Upward Bound, it’s likely none of that would be true,” he said. “Upward Bound intervenes to give kids whose dreams are greater than their circumstances the shot they deserve.”
Portera concluded his comments by reading “a tiny, tiny sample of quotes from the letters we received,” all echoing his praise and gratitude for Upward Bound.
“Upward Bound has given me the tools I need to survive and to achieve my goals to complete college,” wrote Brandon Hosford, a first-year computer science student at UMFK who graduated from Easton High School and aspires to own a computer business in Aroostook County.
“Upward Bound gave me the hope and determination required to attend college,” said Felicia St. Pierre, a senior at Madawaska High School who will have completed four college courses when she enters UMaine-Orono in the fall with a double major in psychology and biochemistry. “That’s almost a whole semester of college that I don’t have to worry about all because of the help and support of the Upward Bound program.”
“Being part of the Upward Bound Program helped me break out of my shell,” wrote Victoria Plourde of Fort Fairfield, who works at the Fort Fairfield Housing Authority. “[It] helped teach me new skills, not only that pertained to my education but to life outside the classroom. I do not regret anything from my experience. I am grateful for the chance I was given to attend and grow.”
Matthew Theriault, also of Fort Fairfield, is studying social work at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without Upward Bound,” he wrote. “I wouldn’t have this amazing college experience, and I wouldn’t have been able to make the connections I did without them. They were my safe place in school, the one place I felt like myself.”
Virginia Farley of Washburn, a 2010-14 Upward Bound participant, is a junior studying live sound technology at the New England School of Communication at Husson University. “Upward Bound helped me find what I wanted to do after high school,” she said. “I spent my summer learning to further myself in high school and college.”
Nicole Sikorski of Presque Isle earned a bachelor’s in history and master’s in special education after participating in Upward Bound from 1986 to 1988.
“I am a proud Upward Bound product,” she wrote. “Because of this program, I am who I am today, confident and driven. Without this program, I would not be the first generation in my family to have earned a BA, or MA. This program benefits many!!”
Darylen Cote, director of TRIO College Access programs at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, including Upward Bound, expressed her gratitude for the outpouring of support.
“Believe me, a mistake like this, no matter how seemingly minor, is unsettling, but we couldn’t give up, or give in. The future of the program is too important to too many people. The testimonies from alumni, parents, colleagues, our legislators and many others are evidence that TRIO Upward Bound at UMPI and UMFK is worth fighting for.”