The experiences of six Holland-area high school students participating in the Hope College TRIO Upward Bound program are at the heart of an ongoing documentary film project.

Talent and Motivation Need a Chance: A National Issue

Filmmaker and journalist Cynthia Martinez is developing “First Voice Generation” in collaboration with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holland.  While focused on the local community, the documentary reflects the unique challenges that highly motivated and talented young people across the nation face while striving — particularly during the COVID-19 era — to become the first generation in their families to achieve a brighter future through higher education, and the important difference that support can make.

Martinez, who participated in Hope College TRIO Upward Bound as a high school student herself, has been following the students since last summer.  She has been in their homes, at their schools, and at many of the Upward Bound events documenting each student’s journey.

“My mission in creating this film is to bring awareness to the current educational crisis this pandemic has caused for low income and minority students in our country,” she said.  “College common app and FAFSA applications are currently showing low numbers from underserved communities.”

What Upward Bound Does — and Why

Hope College TRIO Upward Bound seeks to generate the skills and motivation necessary for success in education beyond high school among students from low-income and first-generation families who have the potential to pursue a college education but may lack adequate preparation or support.  The program enrolls 90 students each year from the Holland, West Ottawa and Fennville school districts. Established in 1968 and administered through Hope since its inception, it is one of the oldest — if not the oldest — continuous Upward Bound programs in the country and has served more than 2,000 students.

Nationwide, TRIO Upward Bound began as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty with the Educational Opportunity Act of 1964. Hope’s program has received federal funding through the U.S. Department of Education for its entire 54 years.

While the focus of Upward Bound is on academic advising and support, the program also continually offers personal and career advising as well as involvement in cultural and recreational activities.

Throughout the academic year, students come to Hope a minimum of twice a week to receive help in their high school subjects from Hope College tutors. One Friday or Saturday per month, the students meet for three hours to attend workshops on topics such as goal setting, decision making, the college search process, career awareness, financial literacy, and time management. A senior seminar, which meets once a week, helps seniors with the college admission and financial aid process, as well as scholarship research and applications. Several ACT/SAT test preparation workshops are held throughout the year.

A six-week summer residential program on the Hope campus exposes students to the academic and social world of college. Students live in a residence hall, attend classes, work in grade-level teams on project based learning (PBL) that apply what they are learning, and participate in career classes, internships, and college visits. Evenings are set aside for study sessions and social and cultural activities.

In addition to the structured academic and social activities, the Upward Bound students also volunteer for community projects, such as watershed clean-up and visiting with the elderly at senior living facilities.

First-Hand Experience with the Impact

Martinez’s passion for the program begins with her experience as a high school student.  A Holland native, she participated in Hope College TRIO Upward Bound for two years (she notes that it would have been more if she’d learned of it sooner), and credits her time with the program for the education and career arc that she has pursued since.  After graduating from West Ottawa High School in 2000, she earned a bachelor’s degree at Western Michigan University and a master’s from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and went on to a career that took her first to Univision News in Miami and then to New York City and Chicago.

“My parents were not able to help me with homework nor read to me before bed. They were both working two different jobs to provide our family’s basic needs,” she recalled.  “My summers were spent picking blueberries to pay for my school clothes and delivering phone books out the back of my mother’s minivan. I struggled throughout school and was always trying to catch up to my peers.”

“Spending my afternoons in the basement of Graves Hall with a Hope College tutor improved my grades and built my confidence,” she said.  “I took advantage of every opportunity to get extra help after school and on weekends from the Hope students. One of the most valuable things Upward Bound taught me was showing me how to fill out the FAFSA application. This was something that I would have to continue filling out throughout my college years.”

“My favorite Upward Bound memories were living six weeks in Durfee Hall doing summer school and having access to all the resources at Hope College,” Martinez said.  “It was during this time that I felt college was accessible to me, despite not always having the resources growing up. Upward Bound sessions taught me how to write a resume and cover letter, and the importance of asking for help and making connections with professors in college.”

Martinez returned to Holland with her husband and the couple’s young son shortly after the pandemic began.  She subsequently saw a Facebook post from Hope’s program that explained that the pandemic was making it necessary to conduct the summer 2020 session virtually, and was immediately drawn to putting her professional background to use.

“As an alumna of the program, I had flashbacks of how my summer experience on Hope College’s campus positively impacted me,” she said.  “Upward Bound students already have a multitude of stressors, financial hardships, and challenges from living in immigrant households. And now, the universe wanted to rob them of a very meaningful summer of learning, socializing with their peers and dining at Phelps Hall.”

“I feel God has given me a purpose to elevate the voices of students who just like me are overcoming the challenges of being a first-generation college student,” Martinez said.  “I feel illuminating this program, and the struggles this pandemic has placed upon the students, will create more representation and social mobility in our nation.”

For More Information about the Film

Martinez is pursuing funding to complete the project, seeking donations to the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holland on its behalf through a Kickstarter campaign that is running until Tuesday, April 20.  More information about the documentary, including a segment featuring clips from the film, is available on the Kickstarter site.