As a seventh grader growing up in Riverside, Alejandra Esquivel-Casillas never thought going to college was a possibility.

“I didn’t really know what college was. No one talked about it. It was all about graduating from high school,” she said.

When her family moved to San Bernardino in 2012, she began eighth grade at a new school, and Summer Steele, then a program coordinator with CSUSB’s Upward Bound program, explained the program to Esquivel-Casillas’ Arabic class. Esquivel-Casillas learned that Upward Bound assists in providing high school students with educational and support services to help them graduate from high school and enroll in college.

 “I remember during that time, normally I wouldn't ask questions, but I ended up staying behind to ask more questions about the program, what it was, and what they did. I ended up telling my parents about it, and I applied for it,” she said.

Today, Esquivel-Casillas, BA, sociology, ’20, is the office manager for CSUSB’s California Student Opportunity and Access (Cal-SOAP) Program in the Office of Pre-College Programs. She is the first in her family to attend college. Summer Steele, who explained the Upward Bound program to 14-year-old Esquivel-Casillas, is now the executive director of CSUSB’s Pre-College Programs.

“She’s my boss now,” Esquivel-Casillas said.

Steele, BA, human services, ’06, MS, counseling and guidance, ’09, said in the past 10 years, the Office of Pre-College Programs has grown from two pre-college programs serving 100 students each year at six high schools, to 12 programs serving more than 10,000 students across 16 school districts in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

These programs have contributed to enrollment growth at CSUSB and have brought in more than $22 million in funding in the last two years alone, according to Steele.

“The importance of pre-college work cannot be overstated. For many families, it is a lifeline and connection to resources that can truly impact the trajectory of one's life. I have had the distinct privilege of witnessing countless first-generation college students, from limited means, transition into careers that have helped to break cycles of generational poverty,” Steele said. “Words cannot truly express how remarkable it is to see a student step foot onto the CSUSB campus for the first in the sixth grade, never having given any thought to higher education, to 10 years later walking across the college graduation stage and into a career of their choosing.”

Some of the same middle and high school students Steele mentored through the years not only completed their college degrees, but they also returned to CSUSB and discovered enriching careers guiding, supporting and encouraging middle and high school students through their higher education journeys.

“I think the fact that they have returned to the university speaks to the positive, relationship-building aspects of our programs and to the opportunities the programs offer,” Steele said. “Many begin as student assistants in our office, build their skills and continue on. CSUSB is great for those students who were actually part of the pre-college pipeline.”

Esquivel-Casillas, an alumna of both Upward Bound and Cal State San Bernardino, began working in the Office of Pre-College Programs as a student assistant during her freshman year at CSUSB. In the ensuing seven years, she has worked for a number of pre-college programs, including GEAR UP, Educational Talent Search, the Educational Opportunity Center, the CAMP Program and College Corps.

Roberto Fonseca-Romero (right) and  Alejandra Esquivel-Casillas
Roberto Fonseca-Romero (right) and  Alejandra Esquivel-Casillas

“The greatest benefits the pre-college program provided for me as a student were the resources, the valuable skills, the college experience and the lifetime friendships,” Esquivel-Casillas said. Today, the greatest benefit as an administrator “is being able to support the students in every way possible,” she continued. “We have programs that help low-income students, migrant students, adults, middle school and high school students and homeless students.”

Esquivel-Casillas is just one year away from earning a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in nonprofit leadership at CSUSB.

“I want to grow more in my position, and this is one way I can do that,” she said.

Roberto Fonseca-Romero, BA, communication, ’21, is a recruitment, retention and engagement specialist for Upward Bound, the same program he joined as a freshman at San Bernardino’s Pacific High School in 2012.

Fonseca-Romero credits his older brother Santos, an Upward Bound alumnus, for introducing him to the program.

“He always pushed me to keep doing better and told me to go to college. He always told me, ‘You can do whatever is it you want to do,’” he said.

“My life changed my freshman year when I became a teen parent at age 14,” continued Fonseca-Romero. “But my brother always guided me and told me, ‘Hey, keep going. Keep pushing. Don’t give up.’ When it came to my senior year, I wanted to go to either Cal Poly Pomona because I thought I wanted to be an engineer, or CSUSB, and my mentor encouraged me to go to CSUSB.

“It’s funny, because my mentor then, Dalia Hernández, is now my boss,” he said. Hernández is the director of CSUSB’s Upward Bound program.

Fonseca-Romero began working at CSUSB’s Upward Bound program part-time as a college sophomore and has worked full-time for the past two years.

As a high school student, he shared that the greatest benefit of the program was a sense of community. “It was the bonds that I was able to create. In high school, I was always self-conscious about having a daughter. But I was able to feel comfortable with the friends that I met at Upward Bound my first year. They were upperclassmen, and they just made me feel like family,” he said.

“Upward Bound provided me with a lot of resources in general,” he added. “The program serves first-generation, low-income students, so we were able to get the support that we needed at the time. They helped me with financial aid, with college applications, and they took us on field trips to different universities. The field trips opened my eyes, and I was able to see, ‘Maybe this [campus] is the vibe for me, maybe it isn't.’

Today, in his role as a recruitment, retention and engagement specialist, Fonseca-Romero said, “I always try to recreate what I experienced. Kind of a full circle. If I'm able to help students gain new experiences, help them with and guide them to the resources they need, then I want to be that person to help them fill that gap. I've always felt like that’s the true purpose of what I do because of what I experienced in Upward Bound. It's a job, but I don't consider it a job,” he said. “It's just something I love doing.”