Two weeks after her high school graduation in the spring of 2000, Taisha Morgan enlisted into the U.S. Army. In her mind, it was the only way she could afford a college education; the Army was going to give her the money she yearned for, through scholarships she couldn't otherwise have received.
"It was just too much to resist," Morgan says.
During the years that followed her enlistment, those dreams of college were forced aside as she found herself serving in Germany, Korea, Fort Bragg, N.C., and finally Iraq, where she did one tour of duty. Now, almost seven years later, Morgan is beginning her dream of attending college. When her enlistment ended at Fort Carson last July, she began taking courses at Pikes Peak Community College.
"Initially, when I started, the classes seemed really hard because I had been out of school for a little over four years," says Morgan, now the student body vice president at PPCC. "That's when I decided I needed to join Upward Bound."
Another "boot camp'
Upward Bound, a federally funded program, is on campuses across the United States. Different arms of the program aim to help high school students from low-income families, first-generation college students and military veterans prepare for college.
The Veterans Upward Bound program at PPCC is open to military vets of all ages and ranks, and it's one of three such chapters in Southern Colorado. CSU-Pueblo serves as the local program's hub, and Pueblo Community College also houses courses.
"At PPCC, the program serves roughly 20 veterans a semester between the ages of 21 and 70," says Kevin Walda, a specialist for PPCC's program. "I can remember one year, we served a veteran in his late 70s who had fought in World War II."
The program, which PPCC started three years ago, was originally intended only to be a work-study program. But popularity seemed to grow as many military veterans found basic college courses overwhelming. Upward Bound teaches vets the basics in core areas such as English, math and science before they enroll in their college courses.
"Essentially, it's a sort of boot camp before college course work," says Walda. "All of these vets are basically non-traditional college students because they didn't attend college right after high school."
The fact that many instead spent months or years in war zones isn't lost on program officials. Walda says he sees many former soldiers struggling with mental-health issues, and that Upward Bound helps put those men and women in touch with health-care professionals in the community.
While he emphasizes that his program's "bottom line is education," he admits it does provide some emotional support, too.
"[Former soldiers] are able to stay active and meet goals in the program," Walda says. "The program helps vets feel positive, a sort of network between vets that's rekindled after leaving the Army."
For some graduates of the semester-long program, neither a college education nor the military originally was part of the plan.
Michael Anderson worked odd jobs here and there after he graduated from high school 10 years ago. Realizing that those jobs were taking him nowhere, he enlisted in the Army in hopes of one day receiving college benefits from the military. Like Morgan, he had to sacrifice his goals for a time in order to serve his country.
"I was placed in combat arms, so there was no room for school because I was headed into war zones," says Anderson, who graduated from Upward Bound this summer. "Now it's like a new beginning with the program. Everyone is really enthusiastic about school and learning."
Though Colorado Springs is home to five major military installations, the Veterans Upward Bound Program surprisingly doesn't receive much recognition around the area. One possible reason: University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, the largest public university in the region, doesn't have a chapter.
Many of the veterans in PPCC's chapter will go on to take their core requirements at PPCC, then move on to a four-year institution where they can begin focusing on a major.
Reflecting on the past four years, Morgan realizes that considering she's only 25, she's seen and done a great deal. But only now is she beginning to see the future that she put on hold materialize.
"After I'm done here, I want to head to CSU-Pueblo," says Morgan, a confidence building in her voice. "I'm going to do social work."