By Kim Swartz
Desire to make an impact on students and help them succeed has earned two high school teachers in Sacred Heart University’s Upward Bound program reputations as influencers.
Evan Soderholm, 26, and Vincent Wynne, 33, teach high school students psychology and science respectively and, when their school year ends, they continue to educate teens at Upward Bound, a federally funded college-preparatory program. Working through their summer breaks does not faze either teacher; they said they look forward to helping students.
Their dedication to providing students with a solid education and good values does not go unnoticed: last year, both were recognized as teacher of the year at their high schools.
“I had no clue it was happening,” said Wynne ’06, ’08 MAT, who has been teaching at Ansonia High School for five years. “It was about two weeks until the end of school. I was teaching my honors biology class, and the principal came in. I thought I was about to be evaluated.” Instead, Wynne learned he had been named the school’s teacher of the year. “It was an honor. I was shocked, but also proud.”
Soderholm said his department chair at North Haven High School, where he has been teaching for two years, asked him to clear his schedule for a particular day toward the end of the school year. When Soderholm asked why, he was told he was teacher of the year and had to give a speech that day. “I was so shocked. There are so many great teachers at North Haven. It’s really nice to get that honor, to be appreciated. It’s really validating. There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t really know about,” he said.
Wynne, a Hamden resident who has been with Upward Bound for six years, saw a flier about it while working at a school in Bridgeport. “I did some research and just went with it,” he said. “Six years later, I’m still here.” Wynne said he often feels nostalgic when working at his alma mater, where he teaches science and an SAT preparatory course to the Upward Bound students. “We’re hoping to make an impact, not an impression, and we’re giving the kids ownership of their education.”
Wynne admitted he “flew under the radar” as a student; he said he wasn’t the most popular student and often was overlooked, but he had a science teacher in eighth grade who supported and encouraged him. Wynne said he wanted to be that person for other students. “I tell my kids to basically be a sponge: the more you absorb now, the more knowledge you’ll have. You’ll know the content and be confident.”
Soderholm said he, too, was influenced by a former teacher. Describing himself as a shy student who was “not high up on the social ladder,” he credited his high school psychology teacher for making him feel important and helping him see that he could achieve success. “It was refreshing,” he said.
He’s been at North Haven High School for two years and learned about Upward Bound while teaching a youth group at Covenant Church in Easton, where a few students were in the college-prep program. Knowing the effect his mother, a former Shelton High School teacher, had on many hard-to-reach, struggling students, he saw Upward Bound as an opportunity to do the same. “I love Upward Bound. Coming in, I was a little nervous, but the kids are great; they come in engaged and ready to learn,” said Soderholm, a Shelton resident. This was his first year at Upward Bound, where he teaches abnormal psychology.
Upward Bound at SHU started in 1989 and is the longest-funded program on campus. It serves about 70 low-income high school students from Bridgeport. Though it takes place year-round, the core of the program occurs between June and August, when students meet five days a week on campus from 8:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. for class. During the academic year, students meet bi-monthly for guest speakers, mentoring and tutoring.
“Students who are in Upward Bound have to have an academic need,” said Carylanne Rice-Ehalt, executive director of Upward Bound at SHU. “The program is for students who would slip through the cracks. They need different levels of support, mainly academic but also—and just as important—is family. Besides managing the program, Rice-Ehalt occasionally teaches some of its classes and often wears her “counseling hat” to support the students and help with whatever problems they may be facing, from troubles at home to bullies on social media.
Unlike teaching during the academic year, Wynne and Soderholm said Upward Bound gives them more time to teach application rather than teach to a test or curriculum mandates. “We’re bettering students’ lives and preparing them not just for college, but for life after high school,” said Soderholm, who is currently attending Southern Connecticut State University to earn his sixth-year certificate, with the aim of being an administrator someday. “We want them to be independent learners in life.”
Because they have time to build relationships and cement connections with the students, Soderholm and other teachers played basketball with a few students this summer. “It was really nice to be out of the classroom with the kids,” Soderholm said. “We were able to teach good sportsmanship and have a good time.”
Moreover, Rice-Ehalt said, once staff and teachers establish a rapport with students and show that they care, students will then go the extra mile in the classroom. “One thing I’ve observed
during the years is that you can’t feign caring for students; they see right through that,” she notes.
Soderholm and Wynne said they advise their students to keep up their efforts. “Life may be hard, and it’s going to give you curve balls, but you have to persevere and you will succeed,” said Wynne, who believes in tough love and telling it like it is.
Soderholm added, “There are going to be a lot of obstacles you have to overcome, but you have to be able to work your way through them. You have to work as hard as you can to succeed; no one is going to hold your hand through life.”
Upward Bound at SHU has produced many successful adults, Rice-Ehalt said. That includes a couple of architects in Bridgeport, a podiatrist at St. Vincent’s Medical Center and three teachers in the Bridgeport school system. One of the programs first graduates is the director for the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access at Georgetown University.
Rice-Ehalt said she stays in touch with many of the alumni who come back to visit, share their success stories and volunteer in the program. In addition, once students experience the SHU campus through Upward Bound, some end up attending. This year, two former Upward Bound students became Pioneers, and several have completed master programs at the university.