Donald Sparks didn’t have to see his parents on graduation day as he was handed his bachelor’s degree to know that they were crying. His parents were but a speck in the crowd, their tears not visible to him. But he knew those tears were there.

Their emotions stemmed, of course, from the fulfillment his parents felt knowing that four long years of hard work had paid off for their son. But their tears were also the product of knowing that there was once a time when college did not seem to be in their son’s future.

They thought this because that was the way it had always been. No one from the Sparks family had ever received a college diploma. College was an unknown to them- a maze of unanswered questions about applications, enrolling and tuition.

But a representative from Upward Bound at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College helped them to understand that the path to higher learning was something that they could conquer. Sparks enrolled in NEO’s Upward Bound program as a freshman in high school and spent an entire month on the NEO campus each summer. He became acclimated to what life is like as a college student, living in a residence hall, taking college classes and meeting college professors.

By the time he graduated from Wyandotte High School in 2004, college was a step he was comfortable with taking. “Upward Bound put the information in front of me,” he said. “They opened up a whole world that made me realize that there were opportunities out there for people like me from lower income families. I felt prepared for what college was really like. I think it was about as close as a high school student can get to experiencing college.”

Sparks is one of hundreds of success stories that have been shaped by Upward Bound at NEO. Upward Bound students have returned to the NEO campus once again, marking the eleventh year that the program has been in existence.

Upward Bound is part of the federally funded TRIO Program and offers motivation, cultural experiences and social opportunities to low-income or potential first-generation college students. Students typically sign up for Upward Bound during their freshman year of high school and, throughout the next four years, receive tutoring and support that propels them toward college.

Since 2000, 527 students have enrolled in the Upward Bound Summer Academy. Each summer, a portion of the high school seniors involved in Upward Bound opt to enroll concurrently so that they may receive college credit. Last year, 11 students participated in college-level course work. Of those, nine enrolled fulltime during the Fall 2009 semester at NEO. This summer, five of the six concurrent students have plans to enroll fulltime at NEO.

Sparks is yet another example of one of Upward Bound’s many triumphs. Today, he is a music instructor for West View schools.

“It is a big step for these students who are still in high school to take college classes,” said Elsie Grover, director of Upward Bound at NEO. “They are breaking barriers. Some don’t have support or a knowledge base at home, but through their own determination, they are pushing themselves to become better.”

The Upward Bound Summer Academy curriculum will focus on four core classes, including math, science, English and Spanish, and electives such as nutrition, etiquette, music and drama.

“When these students graduate from high school, they will know what to expect when it comes to college,” said Grover. “Whether they continue on at NEO or another institution, we simply want to encourage them to pursue an education beyond the secondary level.”

Upward Bound is offered at no cost to low-income or potential first generation college students from Miami, Quapaw, Grove, Wyandotte, Afton, Fairland and Commerce. Upward Bound students will be on the NEO campus until July 8.

For more information about Upward Bound at NEO, call (918) 540-6319.