Sometimes the course of a life can be changed with a chance encounter or a single phone call. Just ask Scott Robertson, whose life took such a turn after a seed that was sowed years before blossomed into a life-altering opportunity.
It all started in the fourth grade, the Educational Outreach Counselor for the HATS (Heart of Appalachian Talent Search) program explains. “I was looking through my sister’s high school yearbook when I saw a section about Upward Bound. I asked my mom what is was and she told me they help people go to college. Right then I knew I had to get into the program because I wanted to go to college.” Years later, after submitting his application as a freshman at Wayne High School, Robertson got the phone call letting him know he had been accepted into the Upward Bound program. “That’s why I say your future is sometimes one phone call away.”’
Still, on that day in 1998, walking through the door at Wayne High School where an Upward Bound recruitment was taking place, he could not have imagined that in a few short years he would have two degrees from Marshall and be contemplating going for a doctorate. And now he’s come full circle as a counselor for a program that helps students who come from backgrounds similar to his.
“I went to the Upward Bound meeting because I wanted help in filling out a college application,” he says. “That changed my life.”
Today Robertson works with students who need a boost up to enroll and stay in college through the HATS program — one of four TRIO programs at Marshall — which includes Upward Bound. And this formerly shy, quiet high school student now has forcefully found his voice as he speaks passionately about the programs he believes unlock doors by tapping potential and nurturing achievement.
TRIO programs actually encompass seven programs. They started with just three,
hence the name. Some, like HATS, run from grade six through 12, while Upward
Bound works with high school students exclusively. Still another, Student
Support Services, takes over when participants enter college. In addition
Marshall participates in the Heart of Appalachia Educational Opportunity Center,
serving adults in Lincoln, Mason and Wayne counties, and the Empowering
Appalachia Talent Search (EATS) which serves Huntington High School and its
feeder middle schools.
Like most of the participants in TRIO programs, Robertson was the first member of his family to attend college. And that’s where Upward Bound makes a crucial difference, he believes. “I could have been a high school graduate who went to college but didn’t finish. But Upward Bound made it possible to not only go to college, but to finish.” And, like many of his UB colleagues, go on to earn advanced degrees as well.
Upward Bound blends monthly one-on-one sessions and a monthly activity with a six-week summer session held on the Huntington campus, where students stay in dorms and get a taste of college life. They participate in a wide array of academic and cultural activities, all the while prepping for college and shoring up academic deficiencies. Robertson admits that he almost left for home his first summer when homesickness struck hard, but he gamely fought through it and stuck it out. He especially appreciated the cultural aspects of the program. “Coming from a rural area, I got to see things and do things I otherwise wouldn’t have. Even that first year, I loved the summer programs; I didn’t want them to end. I went there for three years and I never wanted to leave when they were over.”
And his first summer program led to an epiphany of sorts in a most unlikely place. At the end of the program, the group was treated to a trip to Baltimore, Md. At the beginning of their visit the group was dropped off at the famed harbor and told they were on their own for two hours. “I had no idea what to do in this big city but a friend and I explored the harbor and had experiences we otherwise wouldn’t have had. Last year, I was doing some genealogy and found that one of my great-grandfathers had come from England and settled in Baltimore. His new life started in Baltimore and that symbolized to me that my new life actually started in Baltimore. A whole new world was opening up for me. History really does repeat itself.”
Once admitted to Marshall, he became a part of Student Support Services and in fact went back to the Upward Bound summer programs, this time as a summer advisor, supervising students in the dorm and getting to know them. He went on to receive an undergraduate degree in Social Studies, 5-12 in 2006 and a master’s degree in Adult and Technical Education, Occupational Leadership in 2010. Once again unexpected doors were opened for him by SSS. In addition to receiving academic support and personal counseling, there were recreational activities designed to test his mettle as well. “I would never have dreamed that I would go whitewater rafting, but I did and it made me get out of my comfort zone,” he says proudly.
Now one of two counselors in the HATS program, Robertson regularly is out there at middle and high schools in Mason and Wayne Counties, encouraging students and exhorting them to seize the educational opportunities that are available. The counselors make monthly visits to meet with groups. HATS participants in grades six through eight are brought to Marshall’s Huntington campus each spring for a three-day college career camp, where they take part in hands-on activities geared towards careers. Without fail, each year the campers’ hands-down favorite part of their visit is the elaborate six-course etiquette dinner prepared by Sodexo, the campus caterer. “They learn how to eat at a business dinner, how to use all the silverware. They love the good food in the formal setting and students who plan to return next year invariably ask if we’ll still have the etiquette dinner,” Robertson says.
The work of the TRIO programs goes on year around, he explains. There are Federal guidelines to be met. “We recruit for HATS beginning with the middle schools. The guidelines require that two-thirds of the students enrolled must be low income and must be the first in their families to attend college for a four-year degree.” And students can enroll anywhere they are admitted, he points out. “Many of the students we work with do come to Marshall because they are more familiar with it through campus visits; they’re comfortable with Marshall. Some take classes through our branches and then finish up on the Huntington campus. But they can go wherever they want; we’ve had students who have been admitted to Stanford, Duke, Florida colleges, WVU.”
Taking part in one of these programs can have a real impact on a family’s finances, Robertson points out. “In grades 10-12, we offer ACT prep tests to prepare them for the real thing and we work to help improve scores. We offer two fee waivers for the ACT and SAT, which saves about $200. For grades 11-12 we offer financial aid workshops and we have evening workshops to help complete financial aid paperwork. Seniors are given the opportunity to fill out applications and we provide waivers for that as well, so there are some real financial benefits. In addition, we offer seniors a ‘bridge day’ where we talk about the transition from high school to college. We talk about a lot of other issues as well ... peer pressure, bullying, being organized, the importance of their grade point average and career information.”
And there’s little down time in summer, according to Robertson. “HATS follows up with seniors in the summer. We help them with applications, financial aid. Typically we have 90-115 seniors each year and we stay in touch however we can—by e-mail, Facebook, phone calls—to make sure they’re enrolling. We want to make sure they’re going to get some kind of post-secondary education. I feel it’s better to invest in students going to school now because they will go on to become tax-paying citizens and pay back the money invested in them while they were in the program.”
In addition to his job, Robertson relishes taking on a raft of professional and civic obligations. Currently he’s the state president of the West Virginia TRIO Association, vice president of the Family Resource Network for Wayne County and president of the newly formed Wayne County Visitors Bureau. “I like to give back,” he says simply. His roots are deep in Wayne County. He lives on a street near where he grew up, close to his parents, Harold and Charlotte, and his grandmother, Bertha. His sister and brother-in-law, Andrea and Chuck Perry, live only 10 minutes away with his nephews, Ethan, 13, and Caleb, 11. “We’re a close-knit family; we do a lot of things together like going to watch Ethan play football. I like to think we’re making memories.” In addition, he likes to treasure hunt for scarce vintage vinyl records — those big round discs from yesteryear — to add to his burgeoning collection. And this summer he’s looking forward to a relaxing vacation with friends at his favorite North Carolina beach.
He’s gregarious and outgoing now. His words flow easily and fluently, a long way
from the shy kid who never spoke up in school. “No one believes I once was so
quiet, because now I talk for a living,” he says with a laugh. He’s willing to
go anywhere and talk to anybody to spread the word about the programs for
low-income students that brought him to where he is today. “Being in Upward
Bound and then Student Support Services helped me find my passion. I know this
is what I was meant to do, to make sure students have equal access to education.
I tell them to dream big—if anybody had told me while I was in school that I
would be considering studying for a doctorate, I would have said they were
crazy. Doors were opened for me and that has allowed me to open doors for
others. I was given the opportunity to be in these programs and I want to give
others the same opportunities.”
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