Vicente "Wowie" Gapuz has seen and experienced a lot over the past few years thanks to his involvement with the University of Nevada, Reno's Upward Bound Program.
Between his freshman and sophomore years at Sparks High School, Gapuz spent six weeks of his summer on the University campus as part of Upward Bound's residential academy program. The next two summers, he traveled to the Eucalyptus-lined campus of the University of California in Berkeley and the gracious, green-roofed buildings on the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., for regional college-bound programs.
He came away from those summer experiences, with their different academic offerings and physical landscapes, having learned something important.
The University was where he belonged.
"I just love it here," Gapuz said. "Being a part of Upward Bound has really helped me decide that this is the right place for me."
Gapuz, 18, graduated from Sparks High School last month as the school's valedictorian. He plans on majoring in biology, with additional emphases in neuroscience and biochemistry. He's already been accepted into the University's first BioFit academic boot camp, a five-day residential intensive academic preparation camp on Aug. 16-20, as well as the University's Trio Scholars and Honors Programs.
The exceedingly well-organized Gapuz, thanks to some help he's received from his Upward Bound counselors, already has the next four years of his academic journey completely mapped out.
When 2013 fall semester classes begin in late August, he will become the first member of his family, who came to the United States from the Philippines, to attend the University.
He credits Upward Bound for helping him reach this key juncture in his life.
"It's been an amazing experience," he said. "It really has."
Gapuz isn't alone.
According to Upward Bound director Ellen Houston, the federally-funded college preparatory program designed for income qualified, first generation high schools, annually tends to the needs of 186 students from six high schools in northern Nevada - Hug, North Valleys, Spanish Springs, Sparks, Fernley and Silver Stage in Silver Springs. Students like Gapuz who are accepted into the program must first negotiate a lengthy, competitive process for inclusion.
The benefits, once the students from grades 9-12 are accepted, are many.
They include college preparatory courses on weekends; tutoring; ACT and SAT preparation; guidance on preparing financial aid and FAFSA paperwork; travel to colleges in southern California and northern California during spring break and Nevada Day holiday; a six-week residential academy on the University campus. Past years have seen travel to southern Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
Currently, 104 Upward Bound students are involved with the program's six-week summer residential academy, which began in late June. Their days are jam-packed with activity and learning, including mandatory tutoring, online individual skills building exercises, daytime courses taught by University faculty and Washoe County School District instructors, and social activities.
"The summer academy becomes really important for some of our students," Houston said of the program, which includes 14 instructors from the University and Washoe County School District, as well as 13 residential staff comprised of current University students. "It helps them prepare for the rigors of college. We really challenge them. Their days are full."
During the last school year, 41 of the 42 Upward Bound students who were seniors successfully completed all requirements and graduated from their respective high schools. Houston added more than 50 percent of all Upward Bound graduates matriculate directly to the University. Many of the rest of the students start from the community college system and eventually attend the University as well, she added.
Houston, who was herself a first-generation college student when she arrived on the University campus in the early 1990s, said Upward Bound's success is more than just numbers.
"The thing that I love about this program is that it changes lives in one generation," she said recently during an interview in Upward Bound's bustling administrative office in Cain Hall. The walls leading into UB's offices were decorated with the 1920's Jazz Age fonts of F. Scott Fitzgerald, as this year's residential academy's theme is "The Great Gatsby."
"If you've grown up poor and you suddenly have an opportunity for an education ... and because of that education you can decide on a career rather than on simply having a job ... this is something that can really change lives. What Upward Bound does is show what a powerful change agent education can be," she added. She smiled at the hard work and extreme sense of academic focus she has seen from students like Gapuz. "When you think about it, what an amazing choice our UB students make. I mean, who wants to spend their summer taking government or trigonometry? These are students who want to improve their lives. They're focused on the long-term ... it's an impressive thing to see."
Indeed, it only takes a few moments with Gapuz to realize how correct Houston's assessment of her program's participants is.
Gapuz, who is actually Vicente Gapuz III (his father is Vicente Gapuz, Jr.), prefers to be called "Wowie." It's been that way almost from the day he was born. His mother, Lilia, used the word often in her native Philippines, attaching it to many of the wonders in her life. When Wowie was born, the word stuck immediately to him. Wowie's life since then hasn't betrayed any of his mother's special sense of wonderment toward her son.
Take his speech as an example. From kindergarten through the sixth grade, Wowie dealt with a speech impediment. As hard as he would try, he struggled with the sound associated with the letter "r" and with such consonants as "ch" or "th." For seven years, Wowie assiduously worked at overcoming the challenge.
Wowie's attention to detail and work ethic shouldn't come as a surprise. He said he learned to work hard from his parents. His father is a warehouse worker and his mother a casino host (Wowie's family also includes an older brother and sister and a younger sister). Before his parents came to the United States, they could recall working long days on a farm, and then, after a full day's work, tackling their schoolwork long into the night, often reading or calculating by candlelight.
One of the overriding reasons why the family came to the United States was, Wowie said, "access to education. When my parents told me those stories, how they were so tired after working so long, but they still had to learn ... it taught me I don't ever want to take education for granted."
His speech impediment was something he felt could master, as long as he kept working at it.
"It took me until the sixth grade," Wowie said, flashing a shy grin, "before I was able to surpass it."
Surpass it, he has.
Wowie's words are spoken with thoughtful and patient precision, in a voice that has a way of catching and acknowledging every little detail that has preceded it in conversation. While most conversations these days are often too fast and too emphatic, Wowie has the gift of being a gracious conversationalist; he listens carefully before he speaks, and when he does speak, the tandem attributes of listening carefully/speaking well gives all the conversations he has a pleasing, warm gloss.
"Wowie is going to do amazing things with his life," Houston said.
Not surprisingly, this conversational ability, along with a natural, probing intellectual curiosity, has served him well. At Sparks High School, he dove headlong into work that he felt could make a difference. The boy who once battled with difficult to pronounce consonants campaigned for student body office. He was elected his sophomore class vice president, and then junior and senior class president.
When he delivered the valedictorian's address for the Sparks High graduation on June 8 at Lawlor Events Center, he spoke openly and confidently about his earlier struggles with his speech.
He used his speech impediment as metaphor, telling his classmates that when a challenge comes, "We should take it to our advantage," Wowie said. He paused for a moment, remembering how he wanted to make the speech meaningful and interactive. "And when we go out in the world, we need to continue to find our voices," he said.
He told his classmates not to fear any supposed obstacles in their lives, but to view them as something that can be learned from, something that that will help a person a grow. The speech had a direct impact. Wowie could feel the interest in the crowd grow, as he played upon the rhetorical device of punctuating every few lines with the words, "I made it." At the end, he drew in his audience as well. Together, he and his classmates chanted, together, the words, "We made it!"
Wowie's feelings about Upward Bound are unequivocal. The program has helped him make it - to this summertime cusp of eager anticipation where his first classes as a fulltime University await. He is excited, and he knows full well that there are many who have helped him reach this point, particularly the staff, counselors and fellow students who were part of his Upward Bound experience.
"A friend of mine said it best: Upward Bound is not just a program ... and I know this sounds kind of cliché, but it's true ... it really is like a family," he said. "You make lifelong friends, you build connections, you prepare yourself in every way for college, you learn about this campus, not from looking at from a website, but by being here in person and experiencing it."
Wowie said he loves quite a few things about the campus: its greenery, its trees, the new student-centered buildings that daily seem to bring an expansive energy to the campus.
There is one view in particular that he holds close to his heart.
Since coming to campus during Upward Bound's summer academy between his freshman and sophomore years at Sparks High, the view that one sees from the old bluff not far from offices of Cain Hall and the College of Education, looking down on the Knowledge Center and the Joe Crowley Student Union, has grabbed Wowie's imagination on many occasions.
He sees so many students just like himself. Some come from privilege, some not. Some have overcome obstacles. Some have faced extreme personal challenges to get to campus. Many have found, like Wowie, that the promise of an education needs to be a central figure, a life force, in everything that they do.
"I know some people wonder, 'Aren't you scared going off to college ... won't it be hard?'" Wowie asked with a grin. It's a confident grin, one that suggests he is up for the challenge. "But isn't that what college is supposed to be?"
From his favorite view of campus, he sees two sun-splashed and buildings that are intricately tethered to the student experience, and how the buildings, too, are keys to the lives of a University.
But more than all that, Wowie sees something that fills him with a strong sense of belonging, a sense that the University provides an opportunity for some to know how their lives were before they attended it, and how their lives might be once they have finished.
"Whenever I see that view," he said, his voice growing as majestic and expansive and full of possibility as the view that always moves him, "I think, 'OK, this is my school. I'm so glad to be here. I just love it."