Richard Vari entered high school in the 1970s having never traveled outside the mountains of eastern Kentucky where he was born. Joining Upward Bound changed all that. Soon, he was touring the nation’s capital, attending his first professional baseball game, taking in a lacrosse match, and exploring history at Monticello.

“All of these new places and things opened my eyes as a young boy from Harlan County,” he said. “What could I be? What could I dream of?”

Upward Bound, a federally funded program to help underserved high school students prepare for college, widened Vari’s perspective and helped keep him on track. He became the first in his family to attend college. Today, he helps lead the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine as senior dean of academic affairs.

Vari recently shared his story with Virginia Tech TRIO Programs students as they celebrated graduation. TRIO Programs includes Upward Bound and Talent Search and serves students in 12 school divisions across Southwest Virginia.

“It is so inspirational for our students to hear from Dr. Vari, a winner of the National TRIO Achiever Award and someone who is making a difference right here in Roanoke. Like many of our students, he grew up in rural Appalachia in a family with limited resources, participated in the Upward Bound program, and used the skills he learned as a springboard to academic and career success,” Virginia Tech TRIO Programs Director Frances Clark said.

Upward Bound encourages students to think about their career path, keep up with their studies, and meet with their guidance counselors. It also offers programs that provide extra support in challenging subjects such as chemistry and physics.

The summer program is a key component of Upward Bound, and Virginia Tech TRIO Programs, part of Outreach and International Affairs, holds a six-week residential program on the Blacksburg campus each summer. Students get a taste of college life ⁠— living in residence halls and eating in the dining centers while also taking classes in subjects such as math, English, foreign languages, and science. During the school year, students also participate in monthly weekend sessions, travel, and tour college campuses together. Because of the pandemic, programs have been offered virtually the past two years.

“The summer program is an important experience for students who might not otherwise get the chance to tour, let alone live and take classes at, a college campus. Their experiences at Virginia Tech help them feel confident about pursuing a college education, even if Virginia Tech is not their final choice,” Clark said.

The program gave Vari social experiences he never would have had otherwise. An only child raised by his grandmother, he said Upward Bound expanded his network of friends. “We all came from poor families, and none of our families had been to college. We had a lot of things in common, and that gave me comfort.”

After high school, Vari attended community college for a year before transferring to the University of Kentucky. “Coming from the mountains, it was hard being in Lexington. It was a big place. But Upward Bound gave me a leg up ⁠— the perseverance and confidence I needed to overcome challenges in college.”

Vari received his undergraduate degree in biology and then his master’s and doctorate in physiology. But it was as a postdoctorate fellow at the University of Missouri School of Medicine that he learned he had a knack for training others. Assigned to teach a class of 100 nursing students, he was anxious and unsure. “But getting outside of my comfort zone led me to my calling: teaching. Because of my education, I was able to expand my career,” he said.

The boy who had never left Harlan County ended up with a career that would take him around the country. After finishing his fellowship, he took a position as an assistant professor at Tulane University School of Medicine. In 1993, he accepted a job at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. And in 2008, he moved to Roanoke to help start the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

Vari has continued to help first-generation and minority population students throughout his career. He advocates for the TRIO Programs to lawmakers and others, sharing his story and the difference the programs have on many lives.

“Dr. Vari’s story illustrates just how vital the TRIO programs are and that they really do work in setting these students on a path to success,” Clark said.

Vari said first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students need all the support they can get. “Without Upward Bound and TRIO, they are at an extreme disadvantage, and I think Upward Bound tries to level that playing field.”

Written by Diane Deffenbaugh

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