Empowering the Underdog

Jill Bjorklund
Jill Bjorklund has found her calling in Upward Bound

Jill Bjorklund has found her calling in Upward Bound

As an academic advisor in the TRiO Upward Bound program at Dakota County Technical College, Jill Bjorklund follows a simple yet dynamic philosophy: “Empower the underdog.” Jill is attuned to a mission that dates back to the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. As it happens, Upward Bound, one of eight federal TRiO programs, is now celebrating 50 years of providing fundamental support to high school students who are preparing to enter college. The students Upward Bound assists are from low-income families and/or families where neither parent has earned a bachelor’s degree.

“I work with fifty students at Henry Sibley and South St. Paul high schools,” said Jill, who started in Upward Bound at DCTC in 2008. She noted that Upward Bound students receive a stipend and are typically in the program from ninth till twelfth grade. “What I like best is seeing how students grow in Upward Bound, how they gain confidence academically and personally as they progress from freshman to seniors.”

Jill grew up in Wadena, Minn., a town of about 4,100 residents roughly 160 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. After graduating from Wadena High School in 1980, she attended Minnesota State University Moorhead (Moorhead State University at the time), earning a Bachelor of Science in Marketing in 1984.

“Marketing is a broad field and for me that meant too many choices and not enough direction,” Jill said. She worked in a variety of marketing positions for 10 years, including a job as a marketing analyst at Fingerhut. “I was good at the numbers stuff, but that work wasn’t for me.”

In 1995, Jill landed a job as a parent involvement coordinator at South St. Paul High School. She found the position challenging, but ultimately fulfilling because she could work directly with students who really needed her help. She recruited youth coordinators from area churches to provide guidance to students in a group setting. She also launched tutoring as well as drug and alcohol prevention programs. A position that was originally funded by a three-year grant ended up lasting 11 years.

“My work became focused on the kids,” Jill remembered. “I enjoyed interacting with the students and building relationships.”

Her experience and knowledge in the area of youth development proved an ideal fit when she applied for her current position as an Upward Bound academic advisor. She could not only continue assisting high school students, but she could also work at a place where she and her family had close ties, South St. Paul High School. Thanks to a Perkins grant, she went on to obtain a Global Career Development Facilitator certificate, earning graduate credits at Hamline University .

“Upward Bound is a big commitment for students,” Jill said. “They meet twice a week and one Saturday a month. They attend a six-week Summer Program program that offers English and math classes that focus on ACT preparation.” The Summer Program also includes classes in Spanish and visits to college and university campuses as well as camps that a provide a science component. A Nanoscience Technology camp is scheduled for summer 2014.

Because she works with Upward Bound high schoolers for four years, Jill forges strong relationships, but she finds that she is more excited than sad when her students graduate and head for college. “Our goal is help students excel academically before college while preparing them for success in their higher education careers,” she said. “Upward Bound helps break the poverty cycle for low-income families—and that makes our work very rewarding.”

DCTC TRiO Director Dora Schumacher appreciates the knowledge and compassion Jill brings to her role in Upward Bound. “Jill’s attention to detail is surpassed only by her care and concern for our students,” Dora said. “She is a reliable source of information and support. Students and parents benefit from the wealth of information that she has amassed about the admission and financial aid process of applying to college.”

Jill met her husband, Randy at Moorhead and they have been married 26 years. Randy teaches physical education at South St. Paul High School. He also coaches football and track; he was head football coach for many years, but decided he wanted to spend more time with his sons. Jill and Randy have three, Jack, 23, a senior at the College of St. Scholastica, Reid, 20, a sophomore at St. John’s University, and Jaden, 17, a junior at South St. Paul. Like his brothers, Jaden competes in football and track at his high school. Jack is a linebacker for the Saints. Reid is a defensive back for the Johnnies.

Jill enjoys gardening in her free time. Attending games and meets is a way of life for the Bjorklunds. The family also likes spending time outdoors. They regularly snowmobile, four-wheel, hunt and fish on family-owned recreation land near a lake in Perham, Minn.

(left to right) Randy, Jack, Reid, Jaden and Jill

Upward Bound student perspectives

Christian Grande
Senior | South St. Paul High School

Christian Grande

Age: 18
Hometown: San Francisco, Calif.
Residence now: South St. Paul, Minn.

At age 6, Christian Grande moved from California to Romeoville, Ill., before his family settled in Minnesota in 2010. Christian will be graduating from South St. Paul High School spring 2014. He is considering registered nursing, computer science and the U.S. Air Force as career paths. St. John’s, St. Cloud State and the University of Minnesota are his top picks for his postsecondary education. He is currently a PSEO student at Inver Hills Community College.

While a student at South St. Paul, Christian lettered in wrestling and track, competing at 138 pounds and running the 1600 meter. He also played trombone in the school’s affiliated jazz band his junior and senior years; he has played trombone since the sixth grade. He draws as a hobby and is influenced by manga, or Japanese comics. He has three half brothers who are grown and on their own.

About Upward Bound: “I needed ideas for college and Upward Bound pushed me in the right direction. I started as a sophomore and had friends already involved in the program. The benefits Upward Bound provides I can use now and later in life. I didn’t know a thing about filling out a FAFSA. I also found the lessons about taking the ACT very helpful. I started with a basic 21 and raised my score to 27. Jill has been great at making sure I’m taking the right classes.”

Mainou Vue
Junior | Henry Sibley High School

Mainou Vue

Age: 17
Hometown: St. Paul, Minn.
Residence now: West St. Paul, Minn.

Mainou Vue’s parents are Hmong and originally from Laos. Mainou visited Laos as a 7-year-old and remembers the country as both beautiful and burdened by a third-world economy. She and eight of her siblings have discovered a home in Upward Bound. In fact, seven brothers and sisters have preceded her in the program, and one more is following in a lot of footsteps.

Mainou sings alto one in choir at Henry Sibley—and singing is definitely one of her favorite things. She performed with her cousin at the school’s talent show, singing “Hallelujah,” and made the final cut. She also enjoys tennis, but doesn’t have as much time to play as she would like.

She is undecided about her future college major, but discovered a strong interest in psychology after taking a course in the subject in high school. She likes how psychology offers different perspectives on how the human brain works. As an Upward Bound student, she toured the campuses of Hamline University and The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University and was very impressed. However, New York University, or NYU, ranks as her ultimate dream college.

About Upward Bound: “My dad encouraged all of us to join Upward Bound, knowing how the program is geared toward first-generation college students from immigrant families. Thinking about going to college can be scary, and I like how Upward Bound makes the idea seem much more doable. I’ve participated in the six-week Summer Program twice now, and even though it’s not required, I’ll be participating again this summer. We’ve gone on great field trips. One summer we went to Bemidji. We also visited Fort Myers, Florida. We went on an air boat ride in the Everglades and took a cruise and saw dolphins. The highlight for me was jet-skiing. That was really fun.”

Dakota County Technical College also partners with Burnsville High School to offer Upward Bound. To learn more, read, “BHS ramps up efforts to make students college-ready” by Alex Hall in the Savage Pacer. Caitlin Siefkes and Lucius Elward are the program’s academic advisors.

For more information about Upward Bound at DCTC, contact:
Upward Bound community building in 2013