UPchieve Helping Minority High School Students Prepare for College

Hispanic Community March 2023 PREMIUM
Aly Murray, raised by a single Mom of Cuban heritage, found in the hurdles she faced as a student, the incentive to launch and run UPchieve, a free online tutoring solutions organization with over 10,000 volunteers worldwide and a $2.7 million budget.

Aly Murray is 28 years old, and was raised mostly in Hialeah, Fl., by a single mom of Cuban heritage. When she started applying to colleges, she got flustered by the array of complex choices on the application forms combined with the complicated financial forms. She managed to gain acceptance into Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, PA. and then transferred and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League college. Nonetheless, it took her six years to complete her bachelor’s degree, which she attributed to her struggles with “navigating the college application process.”

After graduation, she was hired as an equities derivatives trader at J.P. Morgan Chase. She worked there in a high-paying job for two years, from 2016 to 2018.

But her heart was in helping others, not making money, which led to her launching UPchieve, an education technical non-profit, in 2016. It started with a volunteer staff but evolved in 2018 with a professional team that provides free online tutoring and college counseling to low-income high school students. It operates 24/7 because it’s online and free. It handles students via their smartphones and texting, in math, science, reading, writing and college preparation.

Since its inception, it has assisted over 30,000 public high school and charter students who live in every state in the union. It’s also piloting a program in middle school math. It doesn’t tutor college students, except for special circumstances.

Why was it called UPchieve? Murray said that it “stands for helping students achieve upward mobility.” It provides a variety of training that encompasses “helping students with their homework, studying for a test, reviewing material for a class they missed, help with standardized tests such as the SATs, help with college applications and researching college.”

When Murray, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., was attending community college, she served as an online tutor and learned first-hand about how many students struggled to do well in math and how it often prevented them from graduating. That energized her to see if she could establish a non-profit that could assist students, many of whom were first-generation college applicants, to handle the college application process.

Ultimately UPchieve is effective, Murray suggested, because the tutors operate “on the students’ own terms. Students decide when to get help and what topics. On our platform, when students come for tutoring, they’re in control of everything.”

In fact, students can call 24/7 and find a tutor online. Murray explains that they have tutors located globally, though they only assist U.S. based students, accounting for time differences and the tutor’s ability to help at any time of the day.

Murray said its research says that most students, low-income or not, own smartphones and can gain access to UPchieve, even if it’s not the latest smartphone. If not, students would have to gain access to a library to use its computers.

Its underlying premise is that every student should succeed in college regardless of their family’s income level. UPchieve aims to provide the skills to make that happen. It also has partnerships with high schools and connects with counselors and teachers.

Murray acknowledged that “she struggled to access academic support growing up.” Hence her goal with UPchieve is to “create an evidence-based tool that provides support to students” like her. In addition, she concentrates on establishing volunteer opportunities for busy professionals to give back to students.

In fact, a research study on UPchieve’s accomplishments conducted by Mathematica in 2021-22 revealed that, among a small sample of 100 UPchieve students, those who completed an average of nine assignments raised their math scores by 9 percentile rank points. And students “developed key mindsets necessary for academic success,” the report noted.

UPchieve is headquartered in Brooklyn, N.Y. and has a full-time staff of 17 members, but operates as a remote-first organization, so employees can live anywhere. Its 2023 budget was $2.7 million, and its major funders are the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Verizon Foundation, Atlassian Foundation and the Overdeck Family Foundation.

UPchieve strives to make it easy for volunteers to assist students online: In fact, there are no minimum time requirements and volunteers can select their availability from a 24/7 calendar and update it as often as they need to. Hence, Murray said, “Volunteers have complete control over their online tutoring schedule on UPchieve’s platform.”

In the past, most non-profits wanted tutors to devote each Wednesday, for example, from 5 to 7 p.m., to deal with students. “We offer low-time commitment and flexibility,” Murray asserted. Volunteers can offer one hour a month and that’s fine, she added.

Its website noted that it relies on over 10,000 volunteers. The majority have searched online for volunteering opportunities. It also has corporate partnerships with about 10 different companies. Asked how it has successfully recruited so many, Murray replied, “They find us!”

Moreover, trainers must undergo UPchieve 101, a session taking one to two hours online that covers how to be a good tutor, work with students from different backgrounds, and maintain academic integrity. Murray described most of its volunteers as “college students and young professionals” based on those corporate partnerships with firms such as Goldman Sachs. Many of these professionals work late and will help students around 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.

There is no formal tutoring syllabus. “Tutors are trained to help students solve the problem they come with, and help them review key underlying concepts. If the problem leads to solving an equation, it may lead to understanding fractions,” she noted.

Tutoring also boosts students’ confidence in their academic abilities. “Students experience many little wins. We call them ‘light bulb moments’ when they realize they understand something or solve the problem,” she said.

It also has certified tutors to help with financial assistance and FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms that help with grants and scholarships for college.

The students who participate are extremely diverse, including 81% Black, indigenous and people of color, 75% female or nonbinary, 83% eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 64% first-generation college students.

When a student contacts UPchieve, they’re asked for their zip code, and if it’s a wealthy zip code, they won’t be accepted. “We are only helping low-income students,” underscored Murray, the presumption being that the parents of wealthier students can afford to hire tutors.

One future goal is to become the next Khan Academy, which Murray noted, has become the go-to platform for solving problems online via video and instruction. “I want UPchieve to be the go-to place for students who need online support for applying to college,” she stated.

Its ultimate mission is “closing the gap between low-income and high-income students, ensuring that low-income students have the same opportunity as high-income students to attend college and achieve upward mobility,” Murray concluded.

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