Published: July 7, 2021 By

Banner image: Cassie Sando, Upward Bound director with summer residential advisors J Sleuth, Hannah Thompson, Cyrstanya Begay, Kaylie Pacheco and Jillian Martinez, assistant director. (Credit: Sue Postema Scheeres)

Cassie Sando remembers when she first stepped foot on CU Boulder’s campus in 2010 to attend the Upward Bound summer program.

“This was my first time away from home, away from my family,” said Sando, who was a high school student from the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico at the time. “It was a very new experience, because I had never lived on a college campus, in a dorm room, or shared a room with someone I had just met.”

Upward Bound opened up new possibilities for Sando and has been a guiding force in her life, prompting her to return as a summer residential advisor, then as the program’s assistant director and, since March, as the program director. 


Cassie Sando packs boxes

Cassie Sando packs boxes to send to Upward Bound high school program participants. (Credit: Sue Postema Scheeres)

This year, CU Boulder Upward Bound (CUUB) celebrates 40 years of supporting Indigenous students like Sando through its year-round programs. Upward Bound, one of the federally funded TRiO pre-college outreach programs, was developed in 1965 during the Johnson administration’s “War on Poverty” to help first-generation and low-income students graduate from high school and attend college.  

Since CU Boulder received its first federal Upward Bound grant in 1981, the program has worked with more than 4,000 Indigenous high school students from tribal nations throughout the United States. The community partners have shifted over time; currently the program works with six tribal nations in Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, Arizona and Utah, including the Jemez Pueblo, Navajo Nation, Pine Ridge Reservation, Ramah Navajo Reservation, Southern Ute Reservation and Ute Mountain Ute Community. 

The impact has been significant. About 76 percent of CU Boulder Upward Bound students graduate from high school and attend college. Nationwide, about 74 percent of Indigenous students graduate from public high school, but only 24 percent of these students attend college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“What this tells me is that if you are willing to make an intentional, long-term investment in students, the payoff is huge,” said Christopher Pacheco, assistant vice chancellor for precollege outreach and engagement. “The university also makes a significant contribution in addition to the federal support, funding summer housing, laptops, Internet access and more for these students.”

Growing a successful model for supporting students

CU Boulder decided from the beginning to work with various Indigenous communities, a focus that grew out of a CU Boulder pilot project that identified ways to address the gaps in these students’ educational attainment. It eventually led to applying for Upward Bound grants to provide college prep and other support services to Indigenous high school students because their college going rate is so low, Pacheco said.

Through this program, students develop an understanding of how to create community. We empower students to not hide their culture or dim that light in this space.”

– Cassie Sando, CU Upward Bound Director 

Upward Bound is CU Boulder's longest-running pre-college outreach program. It is one of many Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement (ODECE) programs for middle and high school students, which annually serve about 1,400 first-generation, low-income students and their families around the state and beyond.

CU Boulder’s relationship with Upward Bound has evolved over the years. In addition to the program that works with Indigenous students, ODECE’s Precollegiate Development Program started as a separate Upward Bound program and has since become a university-funded outreach program, Pacheco said. This fall, Sando will apply to renew the Upward Bound grant for another five-year funding cycle and plans to propose working with underserved students in the Denver metro area for the first time in the program’s history.

Developing self identity in community

Students from the 12 partner high schools apply in ninth grade for the program, which offers rigorous college prep classes as well as opportunities to build community. Each year, about 100 students participate in the year-round programs. During the academic year, program directors work closely with site coordinators at the schools to provide mentoring, tutoring, advising and more.

During the summer academic institute, participants take college and SAT prep classes, learn how to apply for college and scholarships, receive advising and mentoring with residential advisors (RAs) and instructors, attend career and college fairs, take part in community-building activities and have access to mental health care if needed through the campus’s Raimy Psychology Clinic. This year’s summer program runs from June 14 to July 23, and will culminate with a virtual celebration of the summer and the program’s 40th anniversary. 

“Through this program, students develop an understanding of how to create community,” Sando said. “We empower students to not hide their culture or dim that light in this space.”

Program alumni help to build community by serving as summer RAs and mentoring and guiding students informally as well.

“I found out who I was as a Native American person and came out of myself as a CUUB student,” said J Sleuth, a summer RA who is from Gallup, New Mexico and is now studying history at Ft. Lewis College. “College is a huge culture shock, but CU Boulder was a safe place. I was so homesick, but I got over that. I want to give back to my community and provide this support for other students.” 

Hannah Thompson, who is from Tohatchi, New Mexico and recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, said spending time at CU Boulder as a high school student gave her the confidence to navigate life on a college campus.


Upward Bound RAs pack boxes

Upward Bound residential advisors packing boxes for high school program participants. (Credit: Sue Postema Scheeres)

“You’re exposed to this beautiful place, the Rec Center, the Center for Community, the whole campus,” said Thompson, who is a summer RA. “I was challenged academically during the summer courses in a way I wasn’t in high school. I felt so much more comfortable going to college because of being a CUUB student.”

Inspiring students to reach their full potential

Normally, the summer includes an opportunity for high school students to live on campus and take field trips, but that’s been on hold due to the pandemic. Program leaders, RAs and instructors–some of whom are back on campus–have adapted activities and focused on how to build relationships virtually, resulting in a more robust virtual curriculum this summer, said Sando, the director.

“We’ve created ‘campus in a box,’” Sando joked recently, while packing books, workbooks, art supplies, backpacks and other materials to mail to the high school students.

Cyrstanya Begay, an RA who is studying at Diné College in Arizona, said she has been finding virtual activities to bring students out of their shells. “This program opened doors for me and helped me learn about my self identity, and I want students to have that experience,” Begay said.

Sando said she is looking forward to when she and the program staff can start visiting schools again this fall. As she plans for the future, she is hoping to build on the work of the previous CUUB leadership, providing opportunities for Indigenous youth and resources so they can define what success means for them in secondary education and beyond.

For Kaylie Pacheco, who is from Tuba City, Arizona, being part of Upward Bound taught her that she didn’t have to deny her identity as an Indigenous person to fit into the university. 

“I decided to become an RA to give students the desire to ignite the fire that was lit in me when I was part of the program,” said Pacheco, who is studying psychology and Native American and Indigenous Studies at Ft. Lewis College. “The legacy of Indigenous people starts with our youth. We have to protect them and support them so they can reach their full potential.”