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From Student to Scholar to Public Servant

July 25, 2019

Natalee Deaette and Tony BlueterMy life would not be the same without the Upward Bound program. I spent three summers as a participant, living and learning alongside other students who dreamed of becoming the first person in their families to attend college. Upward Bound was my support system. It was unlike any community I had ever been a part of; made up of an incredibly diverse and motivated group of people committed to overcoming any barriers that stood in their way. Our program director, Tony Blueter, built a community of students based on commitment, diligence, resilience in the face of adversity, and — most importantly — respect and value for others and ourselves. Although the challenging coursework and insight into the college application process was essential, it was the culture and community of our Upward Bound program that made it such an impactful and empowering experience for me. Through conversations with my teachers, peers, and the alumni who returned as staff each summer, the opportunities I envisioned for my future quickly expanded beyond Vermont’s narrow borders.

As a student in the program, my main source of inspiration came from the summer staff. I was always in awe of their ability to maintain such positive attitudes in the face of what was often extreme adversity in their personal lives. Having been a lifelong introvert, I never felt that I could follow in their footsteps and emulate their same energy and positivity. However, I had a strong desire to share my story in hopes of inspiring other students just as I had been inspired myself, so I decided to give it a shot. So, even though I’d graduated from Upward Bound and went onto Boston College, I made my way back to the program each summer as a Residential Counselor. Although this required stepping miles out of my comfort zone, I learned to be successful in the role and also had the privilege of meeting an incredible group of high school students along the way. I did my best to mentor and support them, while also providing them with concrete tools they’d need to achieve their goals.

My second summer back at Upward Bound, I stepped up to the additional challenge of becoming the Residence Hall Director. In this role, I was responsible for training the summer staff and ensuring that, as a team, we could facilitate a thriving community and fun summer experience. Despite all of the challenges that came with the job — from managing a bedbug infestation to consoling 75 anxious Vermont teens on the New York City subway — it was immensely fulfilling to play a role in making the magic of Upward Bound happen. Working for this program fueled my growing passion for public service and educational equity, and I quickly realized that I wanted to spend the rest of my life fighting to ensure that every student, regardless of their background, has the same support and resources to pursue higher education. This realization is ultimately what inspired me to apply for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, a federally-funded scholarship to support graduate education in preparation for careers in public service.

My Truman application essentially became a testament to my Upward Bound experience. All of the mentors I had gained up to that point — from Tony back at Upward Bound, to those I had come to know at Boston College — patiently listened to me tell my story and helped me through revision after revision as I worked to craft the perfect narrative. More importantly, though, they provided unwavering support in my times of doubt. I kept thinking, “How could I, someone who struggled to even get to college, ever be considered for such a prestigious national scholarship... for graduate school?” It was a pipe dream, to say the least, but their encouragement helped me not only to complete the application process, but to win the national award.

Being selected as a Truman Scholar was life-changing, and helped me to acknowledge my own worth as a first-generation, low-income student attending an elite private school. Imposter syndrome is real, and I spent my first few years of college feeling like I was accepted to BC not because I outshined other applicants on my own merit, but rather because I “defied the odds” and achieved more than what was expected of low-income kids like me. Receiving the Truman Scholarship was an acknowledgement that I belonged, and that was truly empowering.

Now, over a year later, I’m still reaping the benefits of the newfound privilege of being a “Truman Scholar.” I’ve spent the last eight weeks as an intern at the Council for Opportunity in Education. There I have had the chance to learn more about what happens behind the scenes to support and sustain all TRIO programs nationwide. In addition, I’ve now become a part of a new community — one made of passionate and committed young people, all working to find solutions for a diverse range of issues that are facing our country and the world. My personal mission continues to be driven by the experiences I have had and the relationships I have built with my students in Upward Bound, but I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to learn from so many others who are equally as passionate. In just a few weeks, I’ll start a new position at Access Opportunity in Boulder, Colorado and will continue doing all that I can to advocate for and empower the students who need it the most. I’m so happy to have both my TRIO and my Truman families standing by me as I enter the next chapter of this journey.