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Strengthening the high school-to-college pipeline

Tavaria Smith has three pieces of advice for her students at Clarke Central High School:

  1. Take school seriously.
  2. Take advantage of support programs like Upward Bound.
  3. Never let somebody tell you that you’re not worthy or that you can’t do it.

Through the University of Georgia’s Louise McBee Institute of Higher Education, Smith works as a college advisor at Clarke Central. And she brings a unique angle to her job—some of her students are her former peers.

Smith graduated from Clarke Central in 2019. Through dual enrollment and Upward Bound, she enrolled at UGA and earned her bachelor’s degree in African American Studies in just two years.

“Upward Bound was really how I got exposed to UGA,” Smith said.

 The Upward Bound Program is a federally funded initiative designed to support traditionally underrepresented students through high school and into higher education. UGA’s Upward Bound program provides year-round instruction that includes tutoring, advising, preparatory workshops and a five-week intensive summer program hosted on UGA’s Athens campus.

Smith joined the summer program after her sophomore year of high school. It was unlike anything she’d experienced before.

“I had never eaten in a dining hall before. I had never slept in a dorm before. It was kind of like this real college experience,” she said.

Supporting low-income and first-generation students

The classes she took that summer prepared her for her junior year and connected her to the university community. As she began the college application process, Smith found a network of support through Upward Bound.

African-American woman wearing black UGA sweater

Tavaria Smith works as college counselor at Clarke Central High School where she graduated in 2019. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

“I knew my mom wanted me to go to college,” she said. “My mom was my biggest influence, just seeing how hard she worked being a single mother and encouraging me to do well in school, always pushing me. But she wasn’t able to answer questions I had about starting the application process or how to use a fee waiver or even register for the SAT or ACT.”

Through Upward Bound, Smith found the answers to those questions and more, taking an ACT bootcamp, meeting with current UGA students and touring colleges throughout the Southeast.

“I feel like I wouldn’t have been able to experience those things if it wasn’t for Upward Bound,” she said.

Providing pandemic support

Upward Bound serves over 200 students in Athens and surrounding counties. Because every student experience is unique, the program aims to meet students where they are. For example, during the pandemic, Upward Bound connected with a licensed, Athens-based therapist.

“[The pandemic] has been hard on our students,” said Sonia Bradford-Davis, director of Upward Bound at UGA. “So we are able to provide therapy sessions in Athens for our students and their parents if needed.”

That culture of support doesn’t stop after high school. Administered through UGA’s Division of Academic Enhancement, Upward Bound is part of TRIO Programs which also includes Student Support Services (SSS), a federally funded college retention and completion program.

“Upward Bound stands on the motto, ‘family, fun, and future.’ We’re here to make sure that our students not only go to college but graduate from college,” Bradford-Davis said. “We help parents see that it is possible for their children to succeed, despite their current circumstances.”

Giving back to Athens-Clarke County students

Woman wearing mask talking to small group of high school students

Tavaria Smith passes on many of the lessons she learned through UGA’s Upward Bound program. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

As she pursued her undergraduate degree, Smith made a point to stay involved with SSS and within the Athens community. She joined Experience UGA, a partnership between the University of Georgia and the Clarke County School District that brings students to campus to get a taste of college life and academic programs. And when the opportunity to return to her alma mater arose, Smith went for it.

“As an alumna of Clarke Central High School, Tavaria has definitely been an active contributor with our efforts to turn GLADs (Graduates-Leaders-Achievers-Decision Makers-Striving for Success) into grads,” said Dr. Swade Huff, principal of Clarke Central. “She is doing an amazing job facilitating individual meetings with students while also providing parents with support to assist our future graduates with their transition to a postsecondary institution of their choice.”

Smith’s pride in her home community keeps her motivated. And many of the lessons she learned through Upward Bound she now passes along to her students, like taking advantage of tutoring and submitting college applications before the holidays.

“I feel like students trust what I’m saying because I was in their shoes not too long ago,” she said. “I tell them all the time that you literally can do anything that you put your mind to. And I mean that.”