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Wichita State’s Upward Bound director relentless in pushing students to succeed

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, at 8:49 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, at 8:49 p.m.

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Kaye Monk-Morgan was only 26 in 1997 when Wichita State University hired her to direct its Upward Bound program.

It is a fiercely demanding job. Her students say she made it more so. In many ways, in the years since then, analysts say her job has become a critical factor in whether Wichita keeps growing.

Morgan grew up gifted but poor not far from North High School. Upward Bound coaxes such kids to take difficult courses, then attend college.

And this is where the really demanding part comes in.

One of Morgan’s lifelong mentors, James Rhatigan, the former dean of students at WSU, said poverty tends to teach some poor children to say no to themselves, to say no to people trying to help them.

Morgan’s students say that what happened after they hired her is the stuff of WSU Upward Bound legend.

“The true test of someone is what you do after the entire system around you says no to you,” Rhatigan said. “That’s when we find out who you really are.”

‘This work is hard’

In every person’s life, Kayla Jackson-Williams said, there is at least one person we learn to hate.

For her, starting 10 years ago, that person was Morgan.

“I can’t tell you how many times I cried,” Williams said recently. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t stand this lady.’ ”

Morgan would not leave her alone, Williams said. She would call Williams day and night. She would ask whether she was studying. Williams would tell Morgan that she did not want to study this hard, that perhaps she did not want to go on in college.

“Here is where you are wrong,” Morgan would tell her. “I need you to understand. This work is hard. And you must do it. Because this is the way the world really works.”

“I really hated her on some days,” Williams said.

“But there is no way, absolutely no way, that I would be in law school now if not for her.”

‘Grow our own’

WSU’s Upward Bound Math Science Center is a federally funded program that coaxes and preps low-income high school students or those whose parents did not attend college to get degrees and careers in math and science.

Its services include tutoring, campus visits, social events and a six-week residential summer program in which students attend classes at WSU and live in a residence hall.

Morgan, 42, is great at what she does, and what she does is crucial to helping Wichita survive as a thriving community in a competitive world, said Lawrence Whitman, the associate dean of WSU’s College of Engineering.

Wichita has the third-highest concentration of engineers in the nation, Whitman said. To maintain and grow that number, everyone knows “we’ll have to grow our own,” he said.

Morgan is a catalyst, he said.

“When you are a kid, you might want to be a fireman or a policeman when you grow up,” he said. “What you don’t want to be is something you’ve never heard of before.

“So if a kid can see someone like her who can show that maybe you could be an engineer or get into some other career involving STEM classes (science, technology, engineering, math), maybe they will consider doing this,” he said.

“She can really change the vision of these kids about what they can become. But what she’s also really good at is the academic part, where she gives them the skills to get there,” Whitman said.

Morgan is now a key leader in one of the strongest STEM recruiting efforts in Wichita in a long time, Whitman said. Wichita is a finalist in a national contest that aims to help cities bolster mentoring programs in science, technology, engineering and math.

The US2020 City Competition, a new education organization based in Boston, ultimately will provide three to five winning cities with nearly $1 million in resources based on their plans to increase STEM mentoring programs for girls, low-income youths and students of color.

Whitman said Morgan is one of the leaders helping to organize everyone – including WSU, the city of Wichita, Wichita public schools, Koch Industries, Spirit AeroSystems, Cessna Aircraft and organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters – to win the grant.

‘Expect to succeed’

At North High, Morgan was so bright and so driven that she won a full-ride Gore scholarship to WSU, Rhatigan said, where she earned a degree in chemistry and business. Then she earned a master’s degree in public administration. She never created a “no” in her academic life, Rhatigan said.

But not all kids inherit her drive. If they are lucky, Rhatigan said, they learn it from someone.

Students say what they inherit from her involves academics – and a fierce attitude.

Williams is African-American, as is Morgan. And so are other Upward Bound kids.

“There should be an expectation,” Morgan told them. “The expectation of some people is that you should not expect to succeed. But the expectation you should have is to go to college, take hard classes, work hard, get a degree, get a Ph.d, to become an engineer or a doctor, a scientist.

“You should expect to succeed like this.”

She taught them, as Morgan herself puts it sometimes, to “confront the brutal facts of our own lives,” including that school work should be hard and getting a good job infinitely harder.

Williams cried at first and resented Morgan.

“But then I began to realize,” Williams said. “Here is this lady trying her best to give you all you need.

“How can you disappoint her?”

Wichita’s future

Wichita is a city that depends on aviation manufacturing and technology. And analysts say it doesn’t produce enough young people wanting to take STEM courses.

A lack of engineers and skilled labor diminishes the workforce, tax base and everything else, analysts say. It diminishes the ability to attract and keep companies that pay high salaries.

Spirit “started out as just a Wichita company,” said Jeremy Hill, the director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at WSU. “But now Spirit is all over the world.

“You ask them about that, and they tell you: They need access to talent and labor.”

Brian Black, senior manager of corporate affairs at Spirit, agrees with Hill.

Spirit has every intention of staying in Wichita, Black said. But right now, it is not able to hire enough qualified people here, he said.

“And eventually, if we can’t find the workers here, we might have to go elsewhere,” he said.

So every program that develops STEM kids is crucial to Wichita’s survival as a vibrant city, Black said.

Black said he knows Morgan because she asks him to talk to her classes. She seems so extraordinary, Black said, that he has done extra things to help her.

One year, he said, when she told him she didn’t have enough high-end calculators to teach courses for Upward Bound, Black found several hundred dollars in Spirit money to buy calculators.

One year, he was working in Atlanta at a business gathering lasting several days. But he flew back to Wichita and then back to Atlanta on the same day so that he could visit her classes for a few hours.

‘Once a Morgan’

What her students say Morgan did over the past 17 years was hound them and love them relentlessly, including long after some gave up math and science and WSU for other paths.

Years after they left Upward Bound, they were still getting calls and Facebook messages from her, as though they were her children. A pet phrase of hers: “Once a Morgan, always a Morgan.”

They say she repeatedly gave Upward Bound students rent money, food, gas money, money to buy a biology book – all from her own pocket.

If a kid didn’t have a place to stay upon arrival at WSU for summer classes, some of them slept for a few nights at her house.

Some of these children were from backgrounds far removed from the middle class, so they did not know how to put on a necktie, use a dinner fork or talk to other people politely. She drilled them on how to manage all of that.

The main thing she drilled into them, Morgan said, “is to demand help if struggling. Many poor kids don’t think they should demand .

Many never came to WSU. Williams long ago told Morgan that she would not stick with science and math, did not want to become an engineer, did not want to come to WSU.

And yet, Williams said, Morgan in recent years has helped her acquire at least three scholarships totaling $18,000, to stay in school in Missouri and now to attend her first year of law school at the University of Missouri.

“And all these years later, she is still writing letters of recommendation for me,” Williams said.

Getting advice

“I was taken into foster care when I was 4,” Violet Gomes said. “Foster care is not rosy. Most people don’t really care about you. I lost count of the number of foster homes I was in.

“I started Upward Bound in 1997, Kaye’s first year as director. It was so hard. She would not let up.

“There was one period of several weeks where I had hurt my hip. I just wanted to quit. She would say, ‘I do not care if you are having a bad day.’

“She plays the parent, the teacher, the psychologist, a mother. All these years later, I still call and ask her advice,” Gomes said.

Gomes is 33 now, a wife, a mother of three who put herself through WSU and earned a four-year degree in nursing in 2009. Had it not been for Morgan, she said, some of this might not have happened.

“At 18, I was lost; she helped me through that, guided me, and still does.

“Except for my three children, and my husband, I know that in my life, there have only been two other people who actually cared about me. One was my adopted father. The other was her,” Gomes said.

High school to college

Upward Bound served 74 students this past year, a record, Morgan said.

Seven Upward Bound students, still in high school, earned eight or more hours of college credit this year; four earned between 11 and 14 hours.

Nineteen students who were in high school and Upward Bound in 2006 and 2007 graduated from college this year. Locally, Upward Bound has served 587 students since 1992.

“Of those students, 434 are my students … served since 1997,” Morgan said.

That’s a lot of Morgans, she said.

Since 2004, the year the program started tracking how many Upward Bound kids graduated from high school, 216 have done so, she said. Of those, 179 went to college, an 83 percent success rate, she said.

‘Out of love’

Philip Pettis is a research assistant with WSU’s Center for Community Research and Support.

When he came into Upward Bound years ago, he was pulling down average grades, between 2.0 to 2.5 on a scale of 4.0.

“I never considered her directness as any form of meanness,” he wrote in an e-mail when asked about his time in Upward Bound.

“I always felt it was out of love. I refer to Mrs. Morgan as my other mother even now.

“I maintained a 4.0 during the last 6 years of my undergraduate and graduate degree. I knew that if I made a B, Mrs. Morgan would be less happy with me.

“Mrs. Morgan was the first person I came out as being gay. In my culture, gay is such a taboo, and for years I struggled with trying to make peace with religion, tradition, culture, and continuity and what gay meant to me was I was intentionally disrupting who I was supposed to be. Mrs. Morgan never made me feel that way.

“We often speak of great people who made these huge significant contributions to the world, some are in this current time and some are in the past, and often they are only known long after they are gone,” he wrote.

“We aspire to be like them, to become wise, to become more human, more empathetic, more kind, more serving, more beautiful, or more humble – to me Mrs. Morgan has been the strongest influence in my life.”

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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