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On a recent tour of the cutting-edge St. Mary’s Medical Education Center, a group of high school students from Grand Junction High School and Central High School were able to get hands-on experience in the virtual reality (VR) anatomical learning lab. These students are part of the inaugural TRIO Upward Bound (UB) program that works to prepare local first-generation, income-eligible students for success in college.

Anatomy Lab Coordinator Michael Williams, PhD, led the tour and explained, “we house three graduate programs at the St. Mary’s Medical Education Center. We offer an occupational therapy program, physician assistant studies and in the fall, we will be starting a physical therapy program.” After touring the new classrooms and study spaces, Williams brought the students to the main attraction of their visit, the VR anatomical learning lab.

The lab consists of eight VR headsets and Williams explained to students that “VR gives us a very different perspective that you can’t get on a model.” Students were given instructions on how to load an anatomy model into the VR environment, toggle the muscle, bone and viscera layers off and on and how to click on individual components to study them in more detail or to remove them from the model. “One thing that’s neat about the VR is that you can walk around the model, and you can move inside the model to get a different viewpoint. It’s hard sometimes to make sense of what something looks like just from a piece of paper in a textbook. This gives students a hands-on, three-dimensional experience,” explained Williams.

When it was time for the UB students to put on the VR headsets, they expressed wonder and amazement as they explored the virtual environment. The UB program is funded through a federal grant along with contributions from Colorado Mesa University and is targeted at helping ninth and tenth grade students with academic tutoring, program and course selection advising, college exam and applications assistance and financial literacy training. UB participants also get to attend college exploration trips to find a school that fits their unique needs. One of the biggest attractions of the program is the Summer Academy when students spend six-weeks on the CMU campus and experience on-campus living, go on a week-long college campus bus tour, engage in various mental health, wellness and social activities and receive rigorous academic instruction to make sure they are ready to succeed at the college level.

When students are not attending UB activities and events they have access to UB Advisors that are assigned to their high school for additional support. Advisors also engage families to connect them with additional resources to support their students and navigate the financial aid resources available to them.

Upward Bound Advisor and CMU alumnus Aaron Reed, mass communication, ’22, currently works with students at Central High School and explained, “I wanted to be part of the Upward Bound program because it is so hands-on, and you can really connect with students in their schools. You get to talk to them day-to-day, help them get to the next level and get them excited about college. I didn’t have a program like this when I was in high school, and I wanted to make a change and be the difference for first-generation students in our community.”

Reed continued, “so many first-generation students don’t see students that look like them, come from where they come from or have their background go on to college and succeed. I think the misconception is that if I don’t look like that, or if my parents didn’t go to college, I can’t do it. The biggest thing I want to instill in our D51 students is that just because you may be a first-generation student you can still go to college and do great things.”

To be considered for the 2023-2024 program students must be going into either ninth or tenth grade next year, study at Central High School or Grand Junction High School, identify as a first-generation student (meaning neither parent/guardian has a four-year degree) and demonstrate financial need.

If you know a student that could benefit from this program, they can learn more and apply for the 2023-2024 program on the Upward Bound website.

  • Anatomy Lab Coordinator Michael Williams got things set up for everyone

    Anatomy Lab Coordinator Michael Williams got things set up for everyone.

  • The students were all smiles when it was their turn

    The students were all smiles when it was their turn.

  • And the students' curiosity led to some great discussions

    And the students' curiosity led to some great discussions.


Written by Giff Walters