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Lifting up students and closing the gap: Upward Bound at UW-Eau Claire

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Melady Vue grew up in Eau Claire and participated in the UW-Eau Claire Upward Bound program through high school. She later worked as a Blugold student employee in the program, and upon graduating with a degree in social work in 2015, Vue joined the full-time program staff working to help other underrepresented students attend college.

Growing up, Melady Vue always dreamed of going to college, but she had no idea how to make her dream a reality.

A presentation at her Chippewa Valley middle school helped her find a path to college and to a career helping other area young people achieve their own college goals.

“I knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn't know how to get there,” says Vue, who grew up in Eau Claire. “My mom had an associate degree, and my dad had his high school diploma, but both were busy with work, and I needed another support system.”  

Vue found the support she needed in Upward Bound, a federally funded program at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire that helps prepare first-generation and/or low-income high school students in the Chippewa Valley to access and be successful in college. The program supports teens as they apply to college, navigate higher education and earn their degrees.

After completing the high school program and enrolling at UW-Eau Claire, Vue earned money and gained experience as a student worker for the Upward Bound program. She graduated in 2015 with a degree in social work and began her career as an associate student services coordinator for the program.

“It’s amazing to come full circle from student to worker to professional with Upward Bound,”  Vue says of the program, which received the 2018 Regents Diversity Award for its service to underrepresented populations. “Upward Bound was more than a pre-college program — it was family for me. When I look back on high school, all I think of are the memories and lifelong friendships I made in Upward Bound.”  

Role model and program success story

Upward Bound 2021 Cohort

Of the 73 students in the 2020-21 Upward Bound cohort, 16 were seniors who completed the program prepared for higher education in their futures.

UW-Eau Claire Upward Bound programming includes the following:

  • Curriculum, services and activities during the academic year, including intensive test preparation for the ACT Aspire and the ACT.
  • A six-week residential summer program on campus that includes academic instruction, targeted tutoring, academic and career counseling, postsecondary education planning, and social/cultural enrichment.

Federal funding for Upward Bound at UW-Eau Claire supports a total of 73 students each year, through all levels of high school. The typical graduating cohort averages 20 students, and the college enrollment rate among Upward Bound program participants averages 85%. According to Vue, that number dipped slightly for May 2021, with 12 of the 16 graduating seniors set to enroll in fall secondary education classes.

“Given the overall conditions for education during the pandemic, that percentage still feels like a success,” Vue says.  

In her position as student services coordinator, Vue’s primary responsibility is shepherding the high school juniors and seniors through the labyrinth of steps toward postsecondary education, from the application process to complexities of financial aid and scholarships. She counsels and advises on these steps in group and individual sessions.

“The most rewarding part of working for the program is seeing students grow from their first day as freshmen to their last day,” Vue says. “What keeps me going is seeing the strength of these students, their passions, their work ethic, the effort they put into becoming successful college students and professionals.”

Vue knows from experience the hard work and strength it takes to earn a degree in four yours, not just as a first-generation student but also as a young mother of two children during college. As she recalls occasionally needing to bring her infant daughter to campus with her, Vue says that being a parent at that time “really motivated me to stay focused on my studies and graduate on time.”

UW-Eau Claire’s Upward Bound director Kimamo Wahome has seen Vue through this transformation from TRiO student to TRiO professional and knows well the irreplaceable voice and experience she brings to the program.

“Melady Vue is a professional who is exceedingly passionate and dedicated to UB’s raison d'etre,” Wahome says. “Further, because most of the students enrolled in our UB program are Hmong-Southeast Asian and female, Ms. Vue’s bicultural and bilingual skills make her uniquely qualified for the position of student services coordinator. Quite simply, she is the quintessential ambassador for Upward Bound and an immediate and powerful role model for our students.”

Current UB success stories: Bound for UW-Eau Claire and far beyond

Where Vue is a standout example of past success of the Upward Bound program and model, her work today brings each new cohort of high school students closer to becoming the next UB success story.

Despite the challenges of COVID-19 at all levels of education in 2020-21, Wahome credits a partnership with the University Honors Program with matching 20 UB high school students with Blugold mentors and tutors.

“Due to pandemic restrictions, the typical Blugold interactions with our students were very limited over the last year. We moved all of our normal programming to a virtual platform, and these 20 University Honors students helped fill the gap with virtual sessions,” Wahome says.

Two May graduates of the program will be new Blugolds this fall, and familiarity with campus will be a nice advantage to enjoy as first-year students, along with the study skills and understanding of secondary education in general offered through UB courses.

One of these incoming Blugolds is Dalee Xiong, an Eau Claire native who plans to study computer science. While he admits that there were challenging times during his four years in the program, Xiong is grateful for the valuable lessons, encouragement and experiences he gained.

“It is a program with diverse people, and I found help with a wide variety of issues and became familiar with college life,” Xiong says. “The summer program classes were pretty hard, but it was manageable. I had my friends and classmates to help with homework and projects.”

When considering schools in the application process, Xiong had some family influence steering him toward UW-Eau Claire.

“My older siblings, who also went through Upward Bound, are now attending UWEC, and they really encouraged me to attend. I’ve known about UW-Eau Claire since elementary school, but knowing people who recommended it and getting more familiar though UB helped me make the choice,” says Xiong, adding that he is looking forward to the campus events he has seen promoted in the city for so many years.

Moua Seng, Upward Bound graduate

Seng Moua became the second-ever valedictorian at Eau Claire North High School to have come up through the Upward Bound program at UW-Eau Claire. Seng earned a 35 on the ACT, completed high school with a 4.0 cumulative GPA, and will attend Stanford.

May ’21 UB graduate Seng Moua took a different approach to her college search and found her dream included a school far away — California’s Stanford University. She gives thanks for Upward Bound and the help she received in applying to a national matching program for high-achieving, first-generation/low-income students. Through the QuestBridge matching system, Seng was matched with her first choice of schools.

“Melady Vue was the person who encouraged me to apply for the match program,” Moua says. “I was rejected by the program as a junior and did not intend to try again, but she convinced me. Without her help, I likely would not have applied or earned a full scholarship at Stanford.”

For Morty Tallman, also an Eau Claire North graduate, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities was the dream, and Tallman feels certain that it was Upward Bound that made it happen.

“I always knew what I wanted for college and where I wanted to go, and Upward Bound was always there for me with the answers to all my questions all along the way,” Tallman says.

Tallman, who graduated in the top 11% of the NHS class, plans to major in biological sciences at Minnesota, with an ultimate plan for a career in forensic pathology.

“I know I would have ended up enrolling in college somewhere, but maybe not my dream school. Upward Bound gave me a concrete plan to succeed, and I just followed that plan to get there.”

A third UB success story can be seen in Memorial High School graduate Tongchi Yang, a student with a top 8% class ranking and a 3.992 GPA who will be attending UW-Madison this fall. When Vue thinks back on the process of assisting Yang, and others with similar struggles, she knows she was meant to do exactly the work she is doing. 

"Tongchi has seven siblings, and as a high school student he worked a part-time job to help support his family. Despite that level of responsibility, he maintained a 3.9 GPA," Vue says. "Throughout COVID-19, I met weekly with all seniors on Zoom, and he always came prepared with notes and questions. Tongchi a brilliant student. I am so proud that Upward Bound was able to support his success, and I have no doubt that Tongchi's determination will pave the way for great success as a Hmong American college student."