UNION COUNTY, N.C. — A Union County college preparation program, meant to foster interest in STEM degrees and careers, had to reinvent itself this summer thanks to COVID-19.

The TRIO Upward Bound Math and Science program, run by Bishop Osco Gardin at his New Covenant Community Development Center, allows students to take core classes each morning for five weeks during a summer program and then have electives.

The electives include an SAT prep course, as well as robotics. At the end of the five weeks, the students head on a college tour to get a taste of the campus experience. This year they visited schools in South Carolina after COVID-19 made it difficult to visit Washington, D.C. area schools as originally planned.

It was just one of many pandemic-caused changes, which impacted this year’s program.

When Michelle Jimenez’s mom asked her to spend six weeks in a summer program, Jimenez, who’s soon to be a high school senior, was not looking forward to it at first.

“I was iffy about it, I didn’t really want it, cause you know, it’s school. I wanted to be done with it. And it’s summer, supposed to have fun,” Jimenez said during a robotics break.

But five weeks later, she’s glad she did it.

“I don’t regret it. I actually love it here. I met so many new people and everyone here is just so warm and welcoming. And I just— I fell in love with this program, I love it, I’m just glad I joined you know!?” Jimenez added.

The program is open and intended for first generation college students, from lower income families, in 9th to 11th grade.

For Jimenez, she hopes it’s a preview of what’s to come in her future education. 

“I’m just really pumped, ready to go to college you know? Start a whole new life, start forming my life, having my stuff and everything. I’ve always been independent too. So, just really excited for it,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez is a rising senior in Union County, hoping to become a police detective one day.

“I’ve always wanted to be a police detective. Growing up, I did have a rough childhood, I had a few— stuff going on. I was involved with cops all the time, so cops have actually been a great part of my life,” Jimenez added.

Usually, three weeks of the program would take place on Wingate University’s campus so students could get the full college experience. Meaning, they would stay in dorm rooms, keep a rotating schedule and eat in dining halls.

Thanks to COVID-19, the on-campus element could not happen this summer. So instead, Gardin hosted the students for all five weeks at his New Covenant Center, located next door to his church, Elizabeth Missionary Baptist Church.

Jimenez would be the first person on her mom’s side of the family to go to college. It’s a responsibility she’s not taking lightly, knowing she is setting an example for her cousins.

“I know it’s not easy. I know you go in there not knowing a single thing,” Jimenez said with a laugh.

She did get a taste of the college experience though. This year’s summer program ended on a tour of South Carolina colleges, particularly those located in the Charleston area. 

In the past, the program has visited schools in cities like Atlanta and New Orleans. 

“They have no experience or knowledge of what college is like. Their parents have no experience or knowledge of what college is like. So, we try to provide that experience for them by actually placing them on the college campus,” Gardin said about the program.

Currently, there are about 50 kids enrolled in the program as it is about to start its fifth school year. The TRIO Upward Bound Math and Science program gets its funding from the United States Department of Education. 

During the school year, the program provides regular tutoring and academic Saturdays two weekends a month.

Gardin said since he started the program in 2016, all of the students are still enrolled in college, except one who joined the military.