High Country Student Programs Adapt Experiential Learning in the Covid Era

As educational and experiential programs across the High Country adjust to “new normals” and virtual platforms, many programs are re-examining and adapting their approach to meeting the needs of students in western North Carolina. 

Upward Bound is a college access program designed to encourage 9th through 12th grade students to complete high school and enroll in, persist, and complete a program of postsecondary education. The Upward Bound Summer Academy typically brings more than 100 Upward Bound students to the Appalachian State University campus for a 6-week immersive college experience. Programming includes academic classes, service-learning, cultural enrichment activities, and college visits across the region. This summer, the Upward Bound staff pivoted the entire summer program to a virtual platform using Google Classroom and partnered with faculty, educators, non-profit organizations, and other college campuses. Anticipating connectivity issues that are prevalent across Appalachia, Upward Bound purchased hot spots and loaned laptops to their students to increase accessibility. Instructors facilitated lessons and instruction in asynchronous online classes. College campuses offered virtual tours to the Upward Bound rising seniors. Resident advisors led virtual mentoring sessions, and students participated in a virtual talent show. 

Aaron Gersonde, Director of Upward Bound, attributes the success of the Summer Academy to a team effort and says the work is more important now than ever before. “The success we have experienced transitioning from in-person programs to virtual platforms is a true testament to the incredible vision, communication, passion, and capacity of our Upward Bound staff, instructors, and partners. Full-time staff members, seasonal instructors, and regional partners have worked tirelessly to develop and implement meaningful, purposeful, and engaging classes and experiences for our students. The importance of meeting our students’ academic needs has never been greater, and our hope is that our program will continue to connect students to their goals, to each other, and to the ways they can affect positive growth in themselves through their educational journeys. High school students who want to go to college will benefit significantly from participating in Upward Bound.  I highly encourage families to pursue both Upward Bound and Mountain Alliance as opportunities for enriching their student's education.”

Mountain Alliance and Upward Bound traditionally partner each summer to provide outdoor, experiential enrichment opportunities to high school students. This summer, Mountain Alliance organized and facilitated both international and community- focused service-learning projects for rising sophomores and  juniors. The goal of providing a diversity of experience for students also led to reflection on how students can serve in their communities in the future. The collaborative effort created a rewarding experience for students. 

Eric Nunez, Upward Bound junior at Watauga High School remarks, “All the service projects that we did were really good. We did Wine to Water, wrote letters [to nursing home residents], made friendship bracelets [and] a lot of different things. I felt that they all had in common a lesson that I learned: being grateful for the things that you have at this time even with everything going on. Some people may not have things that you have.”

Mountain Alliance aims to “provide transformative experiences and support for High Country teens regardless of means and background” and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The program has increasingly served more students in the past several years, and they are currently serving more than 1,000 Watauga and Avery high school students, which is more than ever before. Their afterschool program, School’s Out, shifted to remote programming when Covid hit last spring. As remote learning will continue into the fall, the Mountain Alliance staff continues to assess student needs and come up with plans to serve them on a different platform while trying to avoid virtual fatigue.

Zack Green, director of Mountain Alliance, says they’re being very purposeful with the plan for the next few months, “Our intention is to be really active in providing opportunities. Our plan is probably to offer a variety of opportunities. I think it will be a combination of in-person programs for smaller groups and some virtual programs. We’ve been so proud of what we’ve done to be inclusive and accessible and equitable in terms of access, and I think a variety is important for that. Like most educators across the country, we are totally anxious to get back to engaging with students in-person.”

As students across Appalachia return to school in-person, remotely, or in a combination of both, virtual programming will continue to evolve. Despite the future of the pandemic, college access and experiential student programs will continue to meet the needs of their students.  For more information about Mountain Alliance, visit their website at www.mountainalliance.org/. Learn more about Upward Bound at www.upwardbound.appstate.edu

Upward Bound Participant, Eric Nunez, learns about water filters during a service-learning summer program component.

Upward Bound Participant, Eric Nunez, learns about water filters during a service-learning summer program component.

Upward Bound student, Hannah Hamby, participates in service-learning summer program components.

Upward Bound student, Hannah Hamby, participates in service-learning summer program components.

Upward Bound student, Alisa Cruz, participates in service-learning summer program components.
Published: Aug 26, 2020 1:50pm