Students from Tacoma, Lakewood spend part of holidays learning through 50-year-old Upward Bound program

They could be at home during winter break – texting friends, playing Xbox, sleeping.

But Lawrence Banquel, a student at Clover Park High School, said he didn’t want to waste his free time.

“When I’m home, I’ll be on the computer, searching the Internet,” he said. “Here, I’m communicating with people.”

“Here,” for Banquel and for nearly 100 Tacoma and Lakewood high school juniors, is the Tacoma campus of The Evergreen State College. For four days over winter break, they are participating in a Winter Summit sponsored by Upward Bound.

Upward Bound is a 50-year-old federally funded program designed to help support students in their quest for a college degree. The program serves students who are either low-income or who are the first in their families to attend college. Most are students of color.

Banquel said he came to Winter Summit to meet new people and to learn more about himself. Margaret Muthee, a Clover Park classmate, said the thing she likes most about Upward Bound is that “they teach us to think outside the box.”

Evergreen’s Upward Bound, which has operated for 37 years, offers programs at Foss, Mount Tahoma and Lincoln high schools in Tacoma and at Clover Park High School in Lakewood.

On school days, Upward Bound provides tutoring, mentoring and advice to help students navigate the complex web of college, scholarship and financial aid applications. In the fall, students attended the Race & Pedagogy conference at the University of Puget Sound. For six weeks each summer, Upward Bound students are invited to live at Evergreen’s main campus in Olympia to get a taste of college life and learning.

The Winter Summit includes discussions and activities led by local college faculty, Upward Bound faculty and Upward Bound alumni. This year, workshops are focused on race and education, health and community, and employment opportunities.

Felix Braffith, who directs Upward Bound and related programs at Evergreen, said students from low-income backgrounds who arrive at college may have difficulty navigating issues of race and class.

“We want students to be prepared to succeed both academically and socially,” he said.

In a Winter Summit workshop run by Upward Bound instructor Gabriel Emeka, students were asked to work in groups to create essays and presentations that reflect on the work of Martin Luther King.

“When you work as a group, sometimes even simple tasks become complicated,” Emeka told students. But he explained that learning to work in groups is a valuable skill that will serve students well in college and in their future careers.

Several students used a conga drum to provide a background beat to spoken words, while others used art work to illustrate their ideas. Mount Tahoma student Shina Aborowa drew contrasts between King and Malcolm X, two leaders who advocated different paths to the same civil rights goals in the 1960s. Other students spoke of how King changed stereotypes about black people.

“You could call him today’s Moses, because without him life would be much harder for Americans today, especially ones of color,” wrote True Emeka, a Foss student and Gabriel’s son. “Most people stand up for change, but the challenges are too much to handle. But not for Martin Luther King – he kept fighting.”

In another Evergreen classroom, professor Chris Knaus, who teaches in the education program at the University of Washington Tacoma, challenged students to think in new ways about what they learn in school and what events are taking place in their schools, their community and in the nation. He asked students who knew someone who had been murdered to stand up: seven of the 28 students in the class rose.

“We live in a world where violence is a reality,” said Knaus, who has also taught ethnic studies.

He asked students to use their cell phones to search for information about black youths who have been killed by police officers, then led a discussion about how much they learn about those and other current events in school.

“One reason they don’t have stuff like this in our schools is because they want to make it seem like we’re perfect, and we’re not,” said Clover Park student Adrianna Walter-Lidren. “We need to be learning this stuff.”

Knaus challenged students to take action to make changes they want to see in the world. And he asked them what they are waiting for.

“A lot of our classmates are so narrow-minded,” said Clover Park student Jasmine Wong. “We are waiting for our generation to actually care.”