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How The Upward Bound College Program Helped One Idahoan Change His Life

Photo curtesy ACLU of Idaho

Boise State University this week is joining hundreds of colleges and universities around the country to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a program that helps kids go on to college. Upward Bound recruits low-income kids who would be the first in their families to go to college. More than 2 million people have participated in the last half-century.

Leo Morales joined the program in the 1990s as a middle school student in Wilder, Idaho. Now, Morales is interim director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Idaho. His stylish office in the heart of downtown Boise is a world away from his childhood. This son of Mexican immigrants grew up working in the fields of southwest Idaho.

“August, September were the months that we harvested onions,” Morales recalls. “So my parents would pick us up at the school. We would eat, change and then go to work from about 4 till about 10 p.m.. We would get home 10:30 or 11. And it was around then that I would get started with my homework and probably finish around midnight sometimes 1 a.m.”

Morales worked hard in school because he wanted to go to college. But no one in his family had even graduated elementary school. He didn’t know anyone who knew anything about getting into college.

That’s where Upward Bound came in. It gave him a personal mentor who helped him figure things out like applications and financial aid. He says he doesn’t know if he would have made it to college if he hadn’t joined the program.

Kids in Upward Bound can also go on field trips to businesses, get internships, and live and take classes on college campuses in the summer. Morales says doing those things introduced him to a bigger world.

“It’s silly but even going to a restaurant where there was more than one fork was very significant to me,” Morales says.

Upward Bound started as a pilot project at a handful of colleges in 1964 right after president Lyndon Johnson announced his war on poverty. The next year, two new federal programs were created to support it and the combination was dubbed "TRiO."

The University of Idaho had the first Upward Bound program in the state in 1968. Boise State’s started in the early 80s. Today, there are nearly 1,000 programs around the country and 60,000 students participated in 2013.

The program comes under frequent attack by budget hawks who don’t think it’s worth the $200 to $300 million it costs each year. That’s what sent Leo Morales to the White House in 1998 at the start of his senior year in high school. He was asked to speak to selected members of Congress about Upward Bound.

“I shared my experience as a child working out in the labor fields,” Morales says. “And then I pitched Congress. I pitched the important role that these programs play in the success of children across America.”

Follow reporter Adam Cotterell on twitter @cotterelladam | Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio