HIGH COUNTRY — As educational and experiential programs across the High Country adjust to find a new normals while using virtual platforms, programs such as Upward Bound are re-examining and adapting their approach to meeting the needs of students in western North Carolina.

Upward Bound is a college access program designed to encourage ninth through 12th grade students to complete high school and enroll in and complete a program of postsecondary education. The Upward Bound Summer Academy typically brings more than 100 students to the Appalachian State University campus for a six-week immersive college experience. Programming includes academic classes, service-learning, cultural enrichment activities and college visits across the region.

This summer, Upward Bound staff pivoted the entire summer program to a virtual platform using Google Classroom and partnered with faculty, educators, nonprofit organizations and other college campuses. Anticipating connectivity issues that are prevalent across Appalachia, Upward Bound purchased hot spots and loaned laptops to student participants to increase accessibility. Instructors facilitated lessons and instruction in asynchronous online classes. College campuses offered virtual tours to the Upward Bound rising seniors. Resident advisors led virtual mentoring sessions, and students participated in a virtual talent show.

Eric Nunez, an Upward Bound junior at Watauga High School, said he liked participating in service projects such as helping with Wine to Water, writing letters to nursing home residents and made friendship bracelets.

“I felt that they all had in common a lesson that I learned: being grateful for the things that you have at this time even with everything going on,” Nunez said. “Some people may not have things that you have.”

Mountain Alliance and Upward Bound traditionally partner each summer to provide outdoor, experiential enrichment opportunities to high school students. This summer, Mountain Alliance organized and facilitated both international and community- focused service-learning projects for rising sophomores and juniors. The goal of providing a diversity of experience for students also led to reflection on how students can serve in their communities in the future. The collaborative effort created a rewarding experience for students, according to Upward Bound officials.

Mountain Alliance stated that it aims to “provide transformative experiences and support for High Country teens regardless of means and background,” and the organization is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The program has increasingly served more students in the past several years, and are currently serving more than 1,000 Avery and Watauga high school students — more than ever before.

Mountain Alliance’s after school program — School’s Out — shifted to remote programming when the COVID-19 pandemic starting in the spring. As remote learning will continue in the fall, the Mountain Alliance staff continues to assess student needs and come up with plans to serve them on a different platform while trying to avoid virtual fatigue.

Zack Green, the director of Mountain Alliance, said it is the organization’s intention is to be active in providing opportunities with a combination of in-person programs for smaller groups and some virtual programs.

“We’ve been so proud of what we’ve done to be inclusive and accessible and equitable in terms of access, and I think a variety is important for that,” Green said. “Like most educators across the country, we are totally anxious to get back to engaging with students in-person.”

Aaron Gersonde, the director of Upward Bound, said that full-time staff members, seasonal instructor and regional partners have worked tirelessly to develop and implement meaningful, purposeful and engaging classes and experiences for students.

“The success we have experienced transitioning from in-person programs to virtual platforms is a true testament to the incredible vision, communication, passion and capacity of our Upward Bound staff, instructors, and partners,” Gersonde said. “The importance of meeting our students’ academic needs has never been greater, and our hope is that our program will continue to connect students to their goals, to each other and to the ways they can affect positive growth in themselves through their educational journeys.”

Gersonde added that high school students who want to go to college will benefit significantly from participating in Upward Bound, and he highly encouraged families to pursue both Upward Bound and Mountain Alliance as opportunities for enriching their student’s education.

As students across Appalachia return to school in-person, remotely or in a combination of both, virtual programming will continue to evolve, stated Upward Bound officials. Despite the future of the pandemic, the organization stated that college access and experiential student programs will continue to meet the needs of their students. For more information about Mountain Alliance, click to www.mountainalliance.org. Learn more about Upward Bound at www.upwardbound.appstate.edu.

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