Kansas students part of Upward Bound summit at White House

Nikki Allums, left, and Charles Sayer were two Kansas Upward Bound alumni selected from students nationwide to travel to the White House for a summit on “Beating the Odds.”
Nikki Allums, left, and Charles Sayer were two Kansas Upward Bound alumni selected from students nationwide to travel to the White House for a summit on “Beating the Odds.” Courtesy photo

When Nikki Allums, a high school student from Kansas City, Kan., heard the White House had stopped offering tours to the public, she sighed.

The pictures in her head – the ones of her walking on the White House lawn, strolling past a hallway of presidential portraits, peeking into the lives of America’s first family – vanished.

Dejection gradually turned into acceptance that she would see the White House only from outside the fence that surrounds 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She was unaware the White House resumed public tours in November.

“I made up my mind that it wasn’t going to happen,” Allums said.

But last month it did.

Allums’ forgotten dream became a reality for her and five other Kansas high school graduates. They, along with 124 others across the country, traveled to Washington, D.C., for a White House tour and the “Beating the Odds” summit.

The students are all alumni of Upward Bound, a federally funded program that encourages the pursuit of higher education to low-income high school students and those whose parents did not attend college. The teens spend six weeks each summer attending classes at a university and living in a residence hall.

Kaye Monk-Morgan, Wichita State University’s Upward Bound director, nominated two of her students – Allums and Charles Sayer of Hutchinson – by writing a short essay on how her applicants were beating the odds.

Monk-Morgan wrote about Allums’ ability to overcome several tragedies. Allums’ mother died when she was 16, so she was shuffled into and out of multiple homes. Her grandmother also died during Allums’ senior year.

“I didn’t think it was going to work,” said Monk-Morgan, who kept her applications secret from her students. “And then the White House picked my kids.”

“(Monk-Morgan) said, ‘You are going to the White House,’ and then she went on into a bunch of details, but I stopped listening, because all I heard was ‘You are going to the White House,’ ” Allums said. “So when my friends asked me what it was for, I couldn’t tell them, because all I heard was I was going to the White House.”

This wasn’t a standard 45-minute tour. Students spent the day on the White House grounds attending panels on college success and expectations. Speakers included Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, rapper Wale and first lady Michelle Obama.

Lunch was served on the White House lawn. President Obama even made an unexpected appearance.

“You would have thought One Direction walked in the room,” Allums said. “I squealed like a 12-year-old boy.”

Obama heard there were 130 students in his house, and he had to stop and say hello, Allums said.

Before the students’ arrival at the White House, they each submitted a question to be asked at the panel. Five questions were selected, including Allums’.

“How do you feel about the price of college tuition and the inability for many students to attend due to the expense?” she asked Michelle Obama.

The rising costs in higher education are particularly worrisome to Allums, who said she will be the first in her family to attend college. She was accepted into her dream school, Spelman College in Atlanta, but said she could not afford the annual $38,000 price tag.

Allums will instead study finance and marketing at Kansas State University this fall. She qualified for multiple scholarships and a federal work-study program, so her first year is covered. But several of those scholarships are nonrenewable, so she worries about financing the next three years.

Sayer said he plans to study engineering at WSU.

“Each one of them overcame significant barriers,” Monk-Morgan said. “Working hard to not only change themselves but their communities – and without a lot of help.”

Monk-Morgan will continue to mentor Allums and Sayer throughout college. Her program has a 76 percent college graduation rate, she said.

The summit provided students with tips and resources to better prepare them for when they step on campus this fall. More than that, the summit was also a celebration of the students, their accomplishments and how they beat the odds.

“(Nikki) told me ‘I feel like everyone expects me to do more,’ ” Monk-Morgan said. “It’s one thing to stand at the fence and look in. It’s another to see it looking out.”

Reach Kelly Meyerhofer at 316-268-6357 or kmeyerhofer@wichitaeagle.com.