Alysa Tomasa

Windward Community College’s Upward Bound Director, Alysa Tomasa. (Photo by Brandon Miyagi)

After more than 20 years, WCC’s Upward Bound program will not be funded for the next five-year grant cycle, leaving potential first-generation college students without a place they call their second home. For those who have not heard of Upward Bound, Alysa Tomasa — Upward Bound’s program director — would like to share her personal experience with the program, the community, and her love of the students that have come and gone (but continue to keep in touch), referring to them still as her “kids.” This is their story.   

TRIO Upward Bound has been changing the trajectory of thousands of students’ lives across the country since the ’60s, when it was the first of three federally-funded programs created to address the inequity in higher education through the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. First came Upward Bound, followed by Talent Search, and then Student Support Services — hence, TRIO was born. Since then, various Higher Education Amendments added several more programs to TRIO, expanding its reach and providing greater support for a wider range of underrepresented and underprivileged populations all across our country.

From left to right, back row: Jacob Maiava (Windward Community College); Jaren Shimoko (UH Mānoa); Apolonia Miller (Windward Community College); Hunter Ryman (Windward Community College); Alexandria Kanakaole (Washington State University). From left to right, front row: Makana Tani (former outreach specialist and lead resident advisor, now WCC Student & Academic Support and COVID Response Coordinator); Autumn-Raine Hesia (current guidance advisor and lead RA); Alysa Tomasa (WCC Upward Bound director); Kayleen Sur (former guidance advisor, now a behavioral health specialist for the Honolulu district, DOE). (Photo by Brandon Miyagi)

So what exactly is Upward Bound? Typically, this is how we explain what Upward Bound is: A 100% federally-funded program that assists low-income and first-generation high school students on their journeys to college. What that essentially means is that our program is meant to help close the opportunity gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” or those who are statistically less likely to attend and graduate from college due to their socioeconomic status and the level of degrees earned by their parents. However, there are so many facets to this treasured program that has existed here in Hawai‘i since the ’70s. 

On O‘ahu, the first Upward Bound grant was awarded in 1999 at Leeward Community College. Soon after, Windward Community College also wrote for an Upward Bound grant and started its own program. The program was first led by Sandy Matsui, who was the principal investigator for several WCC TRIO programs until the first program director was hired, Lisa Gillis-Davis. Gillis-Davis directed the program for many years and was actually the director who hired me as a Bridge Program Coordinator in 2014, when I was a young, fresh, DOE-eyed (pun intended) Windward district high school English teacher looking for a summer job. I never actually got to work under Gillis-Davis as she soon thereafter passed the director baton on to Sylvia Carter, an experienced Upward Bound director originally from the islands who had been working with TRIO on the mainland before returning home. After four years of teaching during the academic year and working for Upward Bound in the summers, I made a difficult career decision: to leave the DOE and become the next Upward Bound director at Windward Community College. 

WCC’s TRIO Upward Bound program primarily serves Kailua High, Kahuku High and Intermediate (although students may not enter the program until the summer before freshman year) and Castle High School. We also have students from Kalaheo and were permitted to begin recruitment at Farrington High, our friends over the Likelike.

Upward Bound students pitched their proposals to solve real-world issues to STEM industry professionals during the Project STEMulate Symposium in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Alysa Tomasa)

What Upward Bound does is work very closely with our students to prepare for and execute their college-going plans. We teach them about different types of financial aid, help them with scholarship and college applications, how to read and accept or modify their financial aid award letters, and assist them and their parents with completing their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). We meet with our students almost weekly at their schools during lunch and have a monthly Saturday Academy workshop on our WCC campus, each month focusing on a different college-planning process or topic. All of this, including our summer program, is at no cost to the participants. However, as I tell them from the beginning, “My mom always says nothing in life is free and she’s right — Upward Bound will cost you your time, which is invaluable and non-refundable, so we do our best to make it worth it.”

And that we do, especially in the summers when our students get to practice being actual college students for six weeks. During the summer program, students take free college credit courses through WCC, enrichment workshops to get ahead or review high school curriculum, and get to tour on-island college campuses, engage in career exploration or community service, as well as have fun participating in team-bonding activities on our Friday field trips. However, the students’ absolute favorite part of summer is getting to dorm at a real college campus! (We think it’s also their parents’ favorite part of UB, too, as they are always happy to hand their keiki over to us). At the dorms they learn what it’s like to have a roommate they can’t scream at or beat up (i.e., a roommate who’s not their sibling), eat dorm food, clean up after themselves, and manage their time wisely between studying for classes and having fun with their friends. They form lifelong friendships and find beloved mentors in their resident advisors. At the end of each summer program, students must complete an anonymous evaluation. Here are some of their comments from last year’s evaluation:

“Most memorable thing this summer for me is just being able to meet such amazing people and create such amazing bonds. I never would’ve thought I would meet so many people that actually care for me and I care for so much. I love that there was never a moment where laughter and joy was not shared.”

“The most memorable thing that happened this summer was the last day of the program. Everyone was crying because they genuinely cared about each and every person. I could feel the love and appreciation that we had towards the UB ohana.”

“I’M GOING TO MISS YOU GUYS! You guys truly made a big impact in my life and I’m [grateful] for you all. Thank you for the last 3 years and making summers the best. I’ll keep in touch!!”

“Thank you so much for this amazing summer. This summer is one that I will forever cherish and remember. You guys made me feel like I belong and I made so many friends!”

Upward Bound students on a construction site visit in Kaka‘ako with Albert C. Kobayashi, Inc. to learn about an engineering career pathway during the summer of 2019. (Photo courtesy of Alysa Tomasa)

When I say that we work closely with our students, I mean that we get to know who our students really are, as well as the heartbreaking adversities they face. We help them navigate through homelessness, estranged relationships, family illness and death, suicidal ideation, anxiety and bullying. College is the end goal, but we understand that there are many obstacles and distractions that could easily get in the way without extra guidance and support. Therefore, while our job is to prepare them for college, our real job is to teach them how to use their grit, their resilience and perseverance, so that they never give up on themselves or their goals.

In my short four years as the program director, I am beyond proud of our graduates and what they have overcome to achieve their goals and what they are already accomplishing. Thanks to the dedication of educators, families, supportive programs, the achievements of Upward Bound graduates from previous years and strong leadership of former directors, Upward Bound continues to flourish and produce successful individuals.

In 2019, after almost a full year of being the new director, myself and our outreach specialist, Makana Tani, and guidance advisor, Kayleen Sur, got to witness one of our seniors find out she was accepted into her dream college. We happened to be at her high school for a school visit when she received the email. She opened it in the crowded hallway outside of the College and Career Center and we all held our breath. When she revealed, “I got in!” we all hugged, screamed and cried as other unsuspecting students awkwardly made their way around us. It was quite an honor to be a part of such a momentous achievement, especially with a student who had faithfully participated in Upward Bound since the summer before her freshman year of high school. And while Upward Bound relishes in these exciting moments of college acceptance letters (or emails, I should say, as I am dating myself), we do our best to be there for the hard times, too.

Just a few short months later, weeks before graduation, another one of our dedicated students who had been in the program for the same amount of time unexpectedly lost her mother, a single parent who was our student’s (and the program’s) number one supporter. When our student courageously attended our last Saturday Academy of the school year, the senior recognition, we all took a tearful moment of silence to pay tribute to “Aunty.” With this student’s college plans of attending a mainland university suddenly derailed, we rallied around her to make sure she enrolled at WCC, and after her first semester we were able to hire her as our student assistant. We were there at her commencement ceremony from WCC and she continues to work for Upward Bound, even through her first year as a Shidler business student at UH Mānoa. 

In 2020, my heart broke along with our seniors, whose proms were canceled and graduation ceremonies reduced to drive-bys and Zoom links. My staff and I drove to every single graduate’s drive by, cheering and clanging our cow bell, sometimes going around twice just for good measure! When they started college in the fall, we had a Zoom reunion to check in and see how they were surviving college online. For the most part, they were surviving, but I am proud of the fact that the vast majority of those students are still in school working toward their degrees. Despite spending their freshmen and sophomore years of college learning through a screen, avoiding parties and concerts and all the “fun” parts about college. 

In 2021, although the majority of their senior year was on lockdown due to COVID, 100% of our seniors enrolled in a college for the following fall semester. One of our 2021 graduates was accepted into Chaminade University’s direct entry nursing program, even after her tumultuous senior year moving across the island and dealing with the loss of a close family member. Two other 2021 graduates raised thousands of dollars for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society through online campaigning during “the COVID years” of 2020-2021. They both went on to mainland colleges and one became an officer in his university’s Circle K International Club, a service-oriented organization, while the other made it onto her university’s club volleyball team and got to travel around Oregon competing with her teammates. These students were ready to hit the ground running as soon as they got to college, and all attribute their confidence to being in Upward Bound and already having some college experience.   

“The staff this summer program were phenomenal…. With the work they have put into our summer program whether it’s the classes, activities, food, housing, or counseling, really showed their care, generosity and love towards the students. I love each and every one of the staff and I am very glad that I continued to participate this summer which will be my last as I go onto the next chapter of my life, college. I feel confident and super excited going to college because of [U]pward [B]ound” (2021 graduate).

Then there’s my 2022 graduate who has endured homelessness and yet graduated with honors and accepted a Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) scholarship to attend a university in the Pacific Northwest. We also had a couple of valedictorians graduate this past year, one receiving the Provost scholarship to attend UH Mānoa in the fall, and another deciding to save money through the Ho‘olei tuition aid by attending WCC while taking care of his prerequisites until he applies to Mānoa’s Academy for Creative Media next year. Many of our 2022 graduates will actually be attending WCC this fall, and while we never try to influence our students’ decisions nor promote WCC over other colleges, we are always secretly happy when they stay close to home so that we can continue to check on them as they matriculate into college life. 

Upward Bound is more than a program, it is a second family for our students and our staff as well. Many of my family members and friends may sometimes get confused when I talk about “my kids,” not realizing I am not talking about my two young daughters (who I usually refer to as “my girls”) but rather my students. We use the hashtag, #UBohana, because we feel it more accurately describes our program. As one student admitted, “Upward Bound is the family I always wish I had.” Our students grow close, keeping in touch through Instagram and Snapchat group chats, hanging out at the mall to playfully harass their RA who works at the food court, or going on hikes together on the weekends. They go to each other’s band concerts and football games, graduation ceremonies and parties. They support each other when school gets tough, and help each other with homework in our virtual “late night” study hall sessions that we started during the era of COVID-19. Another student shared that “Upward Bound taught [her] how she deserved to be treated by friends.” 

Field trip on the Hawaii glass bottom boat last summer, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Alysa Tomasa)

For one student, his mom shared that Upward Bound is the only other place where her son can be himself, the way he is with his own family. This student joined his freshman year and refused to speak. We could barely get him to introduce himself; he was so incredibly shy. Ever so slowly, he started to talk more and more and interact with the other students. Then last summer, during our karaoke night at the dorms, he came up to me and in his quiet way, asked if he could sing a song. I was shocked! “Yes!” I practically screamed, “You can sing whatever you want!” and so he slowly made his way up to the stage area and whispered his song selection to the RA. To my complete surprise, “It’s Raining Men” started blaring on the speakers! Tears streamed down my face as I joined the students in cheering him on as he danced (yes, DANCED!) and sang “Hallelujah! It’s raining men!” I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.

While this particular student success story has nothing to do with going to college, I believe this is exactly what Upward Bound is truly about. We help students find their voice, build their confidence, form meaningful friendships and lifelong memories. We create a safe space for growth and self-exploration. We help unlock doors to opportunities that our students might not normally have access to. Yes, at the end of the day we may be just another college-prep program, but to our students, we do so much more than that. And my hope is that we are doing our jobs well enough so that despite the naysayers, statistics, and obstacles, our kids know they are so much more than that. 

Upward Bound 2021 graduates from Castle, Kahuku, and Kailua High School. (Photo courtesy of Alysa Tomasa)

After learning that we were unsuccessful in the 2022 Upward Bound grant competition, I was truly heartbroken. My first thought was, what about our kids? I am lucky that our students so openly share what Upward Bound means to them, but it also means that I know how much losing this program will impact them. How could such a great program lose its funding? Every five years as the grant cycle ends, there is a national grant competition. This year over 1,400 grant proposals were submitted, but there is only enough initial funding for approximately 950 programs to be awarded. Proposals are scored by panels of readers and averaged. Unfortunately, our Upward Bound just barely missed the cut. 

The main underlying reason we did not get a high enough score to get funded is because we have had some difficulty in recruiting students to join the program. Unfortunately, not all students are willing or able to make the time commitment due to after-school and weekend jobs to contribute to their household income. They’re also caring for family members, attending sports or other extracurricular activities they’re already invested in, the list goes on. Also worth re-mentioning is we mainly serve Windward district high schools. The small Kailua town that I grew up in is not the same bustling place it is now. The gentrification of the “Windward side” has changed the demographics over the years, making it harder to find the low-income, first-generation college bound students we are looking for to meet our grant’s participant requirements. However, even during the pandemic my team found creative ways to recruit students and our participant rate was actually on the upward trend; we just needed more time to continue to show everyone how amazing this program is and what it can do for our students.   

All that being said, there is still a chance our funding can be reinstated if Congress approves of “funding down the slate” with any “leftover” budget, which means that the programs who haven’t been awarded yet can be — depending on their score. The higher the score, the more likely the program is to be funded. Our Upward Bound program actually scored very well, just missing a perfect score by two points. Two points! It is my hope that emails to the members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees from our former and current participants and their families, our school partners, and fellow community members will show how much this program is revered and worth funding. For our students, funding Upward Bound could be the difference between a student feeling alone and feeling like they have a support system. Funding Upward Bound could be the difference between struggling with feeling they belong in college and having the confidence to thrive at their university. Funding Upward Bound could be the difference between just enrolling in college and actually graduating with that college degree. 

While we plan to keep in touch with our students and especially help our rising seniors with their college and financial aid applications next year, deep down I know that it will not be the same without the infrastructure that TRIO provides. However, as I recently told our students, what makes our Upward Bound program so special is our students and the bond they have with one another and with our staff, and nothing can take that away from them. That is why we are a #UBohana.

If you would like to send an email to our state leaders expressing your support of funding our TRIO Upward Bound program, please email to get more information.

Alysa Tomasa has been WCC’s Upward Bound director since June 2018. Prior to her role, she worked part-time for Upward Bound since 2014. After working for the DOE during graduate school and teaching English in Japan from 2012 through 2013, Tomasa was an English and AVID teacher at Kailua High School (her alma mater) from 2013 through 2018. As a first-generation college graduate, working with other first-generation students to help them achieve higher education has been Tomasa’s main career goal. 


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