It’s official. Pine Bluff has joined the nation in recognizing the last Saturday in February as TRIO Day.

It’s official. Pine Bluff has joined the nation in recognizing the last Saturday in February as TRIO Day.

Alderman Steven Mays, on behalf of Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, made the proclamation before a group of high-school students from the Upward Bound program who gathered Saturday in Henderson-Young Hall at the University of Pine Bluff.

TRIO is a federally-funded program enacted to assist low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities enter college. Each year, around the nation, TRIO Day is celebrated to recognize that effort and reflect on the importance of education.

To commemorate the first local celebration of the day, students were given the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion with distinguished, successful professionals, all of whom are natives of Pine Bluff and the surrounding area. "Started From The Bottom…On Our Way Up," was the theme.

Panelists were Charles Colen Jr., chair, Department of Mathematical Sciences and Technology, and director of the UAPB STEM Academy; Christopher Gragg, NFL player; Carla Martin, an attorney and dean of the School of Business and Management; Jamarcus Purley, core member/educational mentor, Americorps; and Lindsey Burkett, counselor at Watson Chapel Junior High School.

The panelists gave students advice on how to succeed despite difficult circumstances and motivated them with words of wisdom from their own experiences.

Colen, a graduate of Warren High School, UAPB, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and Iowa State University, said he grew up working in tomato fields.

"It doesn’t matter what you do," he said. "Develop excellence…whether it’s working in your books, sports, washing dishes, or sweeping floors. If you develop a good work ethic it will take you a long way."

Before recently completing his rookie season as a tight end for the Buffalo Bills, Gragg, also a graduate of Warren High School, was a scholar athlete at the U of A. Gragg, with a degree in sports management, emphasized the importance of education.

"You notice that scholar comes before athlete," he said referring to his bio.

Gragg also pointed out that hard work is more important than what some might consider obstacles. He said he made it into the NFL despite where he grew up.

"I’m from here! But hard work really does pay off," Gragg said.

Martin is a graduate from Watson Chapel High School, UAPB and the U of A School of Law.

"You got to know thyself," she said.

Martin expounded on her personal definition of purpose: Passion — Being passionate about what you do; Unity — Capable of working with others; Responsibility — Being bold enough to say ‘I made the decision"; Perseverance and Opportunity — Because opportunity doesn’t always knock twice; Service to others and sacrifice; and Enlarging your territory.

Purley told students to hold tight to their goals. The Pine Bluff High School and Stanford University graduate, was a recipient of the 2009 Bill Gates Millennium Scholarship and had an opportunity to study in England. While in England, he said he was denied entrance to a public library because of his color and the way he was dressed.

"I had to rise above being marginalized," Purley said. "Don’t let anyone take away your goals… or your individuality," Purley said.

Burkett is a graduate of Dollarway High School, Henderson State University, Grand Canyon University and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a former participant in Upward Bound.

"Strive to be extraordinary," Burkett said.

Burkett told the students to take every advantage of the opportunities provided by the program. She said her experiences through Upward Bound helped her to advance in college above her peers. Burkett said if the students would not settle for being ordinary, "The sky is the limit."

A question and answer session followed the panelists’ speeches.

Upward Bound student Kenya Johnson from Dollarway High School was recognized as the TRIO Hall of Fame Nominee.

The Upward Bound program provides services to students from low-income families to increase the rate of secondary education graduation.

The event was sponsored by the UAPB Student Support Services, Donna Mooney, Director, and Upward Bound, Verna Cottonham, director.