Danbury kids fight to save life-changing college program

Hi everyone,

When Socheata Thai tells you life was hard in Cambodia, she means it.

“I moved here when I was 6 years old,” said Socheata, a sophomore at Danbury High School. “We came from a very small village. I didn’t go to school and I pretty much wore the same clothes every day.

“We didn’t know the (English) language when we came here,” Socheata added. “And we really didn’t know anything about college — how to pay for it, how to apply for it. We didn’t know anything.”

Thanks to TRIO — a group of federally funded programs that help kids from low-income families ramp up to college — Socheata knows a lot more about good grades, writing a surefire college essay, studying for the college boards, and applying for admission and financial aid.

At least for now.

The TRIO programs, including the Upward Bound program that Socheata attends at Western Connecticut State University with more than 100 other Danbury kids, are on the chopping block in Washington as part of the debt ceiling debate.

Is this really where we want to cut back?

Is it really worth cutting $26 million — literally, .000186 percent of a $14 trillion debt ceiling — to stop kids like Socheata from going to college, earning a degree, and making a better world for herself and her country?

I don’t think so.

Consider: Twenty-one students from Danbury’s Upward Bound program and its state counterpart, the Connecticut Collegiate Awareness and Preparation program, will attend college this fall at WestConn, UConn, Wesleyan, George Mason, Rochester Institute of Technology, Southern Connecticut, Central Connecticut, Norwalk Community College and Naugatuck Valley Community College.

And that’s just from Danbury.

These 21 at-risk students, who come from families where neither parent has a college degree in many cases, earned $179,197 in grants and scholarships to help pay for their college educations.

For Jenny Yung, a 15-year-old junior at Danbury High School who hopes to study pre-med in college, Upward Bound and ConnCAP are programs that are worth saving — not just for her, but also for her brother, John, a student at Rogers Park Middle School.

“Even though my parents didn’t go to college, they know how important education is for a better life,” Jenny said. “For underprivileged kids and kids from families with low incomes, this is a chance to get a college degree someday.

“The college tours we take, the SAT prep classes, the extra academic help, it really, really helps you,” Jenny said. “I know a lot more about what it takes to go to college than a lot of kids who are older than me.”

According to the Council for Opportunity in Education, more than 800,000 students across the country benefit from TRIO programs each year.

The kids come from every racial group — black, white, Asian, Hispanic and everything in between. They come in search of an education to earn a good living, and to contribute to the economy and tapestry of our nation.

TRIO isn’t a drain on America. It’s an investment in America.

Just ask media mogul Oprah Winfrey or ABC News journalist John Quinones.

Go ahead, ask actress Angela Bassett or former NBA superstar Patrick Ewing.

And don’t forget Franklin Chang-Diaz, America’s first Hispanic astronaut, a man who took advantage of TRIO as an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut.

All of these accomplished professionals are TRIO alumni.

“They don’t guarantee you a college degree with this program,” said Aelijah Ward, 17, a Danbury High School senior. “That’s up to you.”

To read more about saving TRIO, check out my “Take on Life” column Friday.

Exclusively in the print edition of The News-Times.

Brian Koonz