United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Veterans Aim Sky-High with "Upward Bound"
Veterans Upward Bound participants studying at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, KY
Veterans Upward Bound participants studying at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, KY.

Imagine you're a Veteran who's always wanted to finish high school or enroll in a post-secondary institution. The odds are stacked against you: no one in your family has gone to college, and your bank account has seen better days. For many Veterans, this is a reality. Fortunately, the educational program Veterans Upward Bound is available to make Veterans' academic dreams a reality.

John MacLean has an impressive resume. A specialist with FEMA, he's studying for a master's degree in Homeland Defense and Security Studies. In September, MacLean will be commissioned as an Information Professional Officer with the Naval Reserve. But prior to 2006, and although he had a successful military career and many technical certifications, MacLean didn't even have an associate's degree. In 2005, MacLean enrolled in the Veterans Upward Bound program at the University of Pennsylvania, a turning point in his academic career. "It was a real watershed event for me," said MacLean.

Veterans Upward Bound, a nationwide program funded by the US Department of Education, is free for Veterans. Founded in 1971, the program helped returning Vietnam Veterans readjust to life at home. Unlike the GI Bill, which expires for a Veteran after a certain period, Veterans Upward Bound benefits are available for life. A Veteran who qualifies for Veterans Upward Bound may any age and from any era.

The parents of a Veterans Upward Bound candidate cannot have college degrees; the Veteran must be a first-generation graduate in his family. The candidate should also demonstrate financial need. Veterans are automatically accepted into the program if they receive 100% disability for a service-related injury. "What we try to do is take Vets who have had a tough life, whose confidence is shaken, and we rebuild that confidence one block at a time," said Navy Veteran Gary Gamo, director of Veterans Upward Bound at Pensacola Junior College. He said most candidates went into the service right after high school. They are forty or older, some have no high school diploma or post secondary education.

Veterans in the program undergo assessment testing to determine their academic level. Administrators then create a learning plan for each Veteran, offering classes ranging from the basics in math, science, computer literacy, English, Spanish, and other subjects, to more advanced courses designed to prepare Veterans for college entrance exams. Classrooms are made up exclusively of Veterans. Classes are small-usually less than 10 students-and personal contact with teachers is a given. Some programs offer one-on-one tutoring late into the evening.

"We help knock off their academic rust, if you will, so they can go and pursue a degree at a post-secondary school of their choice," said Chris Chalko, Army Veteran and director of Veterans Upward Bound at Roosevelt University in Illinois. "Our goal is to get them into and through the college experience."

Veterans Upward Bound participant Martin Schenck
In 1999, Veterans Upward Bound participant Martin Schenck, a WWII, Korea, and Vietnam Veteran, was awarded a bachelor's degree at 78 years old.

Army Veteran Sara Fontenot, a native Spanish speaker, enrolled in the program at Southeastern Louisiana University to improve her math and English skills. While Fontenot had attended college six years earlier, she hadn't completed her degree. When she wanted to go back to school she had trouble applying for financial aid because the forms were complicated. Fontenot said, "I needed to fill out a waiver [for aid] explaining why I did not attend college for so long and why my scores were so low when I left. I became very upset due to the Army mobilizing me twice since 9/11 and my mother [passing] away, as well as my best friend from the Army." She said she was ready to give up the idea of going back to school, but program staff counseled her and calmed her down. With their help, Fontenot wrote the waiver letter. Her finance loan was approved the next month.

In addition to academic attention, teachers use field trips to motivate their students. Every eight weeks, Gamo, the Pensacola director, selects a different university for his students to tour. "It really gets our guys fired up," he said. "It puts a picture in their minds that they could fit in this environment." Along with participating in college tours, his students toured historic military sites, attended plays and concerts, and sailed the Mississippi on a riverboat.

According to Gamo, some students have prison records or had stints in drug rehabilitation clinics. They had never been exposed to the academic culture or friendship offered. Veterans Upward Bound "has changed their lives," said Gamo. "Now, they're associating with people who are going somewhere. For those who catch fire, the camaraderie is as important as the program. These guys are so enthusiastic. We don't save them all, but I like our winning percentage."

Army Veteran David Angle participated in the program at Western Kentucky University, he received his bachelor's degree, and now works as an education specialist for Veterans Upward Bound at WKU. He is studying for his master's in education. "When I started I was intimidated because I stuck out like a sore thumb because I was older," said Angle. "Now I'm not only giving back to the program that helped me out, I'm giving back to other Veterans."

Navy Veteran Alan Tubban, a participant at Pensacola Junior College, learned about the program through a pamphlet at a VA hospital and enrolled immediately. "Every day I'm here, there's someone around to answer a question," he said. "It lets us know that as Veterans, they're not going to forget about us. [With Veterans Upward Bound], you have the opportunity to excel."

Links:

U.S. Dept. of Education*
National Association of Veterans Upward Bound**
Military.com**
Boston VA Medical Center

*Link will take you off the Department of Veterans Affairs web site.
**Link will take you off the Department of Veterans Affairs web site. VA does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of the linked web site.

By Stephanie Strauss, VA Staff Writer