Brenda Begay was thinking about her future when most high school students were just trying to figure out their locker combinations.

Even as a freshman at Many Farms High School, in the heart of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, Begay knew she wanted to go to college to pursue a career in medicine. Yet since neither of her parents had earned a college degree, going to college seemed complicated and expensive.

Through her high school counselor, Begay’s mother learned about Northern Arizona University’s Four Corners Upward Bound Math and Science program, which helps prepare freshmen and sophomore high school students for careers in math and science, and she encouraged Begay to apply.

The program, a multi-year college-prep summer academy on the NAU campus, introduces low-income and potentially first generation college students to the rigors of college life. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and is free to students who qualify.

“Upward Bound aims to make college more accessible, regardless of a student’s socioeconomic status,” said Amanda Kapp, coordinator of the Four Corners program.

Nationwide, nearly 67 percent of high school graduates enroll in college upon earning their diploma, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. But for low-income students that matriculation rate is much lower, with 38 percent enrolling in college right after graduating from high school.

“Many qualified students don’t know about their options for financial aid or how to apply, or they may not have confidence in their abilities to be successful college students,” Kapp said. “We’re helping these students and their parents navigate the college application process and prepare for the increased challenge of college coursework.”

Begay took her mother’s advice and was accepted into the program as a freshman in high school. She spent three consecutive summers on the NAU campus in Flagstaff, along with dozens of other high school students from the Four Corners region, in preparation for the demands of college academics.

As part of the program, students attend challenging ACT preparation classes that focus on math, science, English and reading, and they also participate in hands-on science projects that help sharpen their research and presentation skills. Students also learn how to manage their time, meet deadlines and utilize campus resources.

Now four years later, Begay has completed her first semester as a freshman at NAU and says the program has helped her transition to college life.

“I liked the science classes most of all because my major is biology,” she said. “I had a research project to do and I was the only one familiar with the material.”

She said the skills she learned to help her manage her time and prioritize tasks were also helpful, and that being able to keep on top of homework has greatly contributed to her success at NAU.

“In college a deadline’s a deadline, that’s it,” she said.

With at least three years still to complete, Begay is confident she will stick it out to earn her degree. “It’s hard, but I know it’s going to be worth it,” she said. “College is going to get me somewhere.”

Four Corners Upward Bound is accepting applications from freshmen and sophomore high school students interested in math and science careers. Applications are available through the Four Corners office at (800) 628-4494 or online. Applications need to be postmarked by Feb. 16.