In retrospect, Thay Thao couldn’t imagine what college would have been like without time spent in community service.

Now he’s giving back in a highly personal way by working with Upward Bound, a program that serves low-income or first-generation students who hope to go to college.

He’s returned home to help students at his alma mater, Central Senior High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, advance to higher education the same way advisers at Upward Bound once set him on a course to Suffolk University. His 2014 graduation made him the first in his family to get a bachelor’s degree.

Whetting an appetite for service

During his time at Suffolk, Thao did everything from planting trees in Virginia during Alternative Spring Break to mentoring a fifth-grader at a Boston elementary school, all through the Center for Community Engagement.

“I learned that nothing beats the reward that you receive when you’ve just helped someone,” said Thao. “Volunteering played a huge role in my college experience,”

Thao also volunteered two of his summers working with Upward Bound in a residential program that helps high school students prepare for life in college.

The hand of fate

So when the chance to work with Upward Bound full-time in St. Paul became available shortly after graduation, it felt like fate.

Upward Bound is a federal program serving high school students. It provides academic support and guidance to students and their families with the goal of seeing participants complete high school and go on to graduate from college.

Thao and his fellow academic advisers help 88 students at two high schools to navigate the road to college, from learning how to overcome language barriers and revising their college essays to improving ACT scores and filling out FAFSA.

“I know where they are, because I was there myself,” Thao said. “Now I am helping them to realize that they can do it, where before they didn’t even know where to start.”

Transformation yields rewards

He has known some of the students since they were freshman. They are now juniors, and Thao has seen how they’ve grown more confident and academically motivated.

“They have gone from timid and quiet to being active and unafraid to ask questions. They’ve transformed, not just academically, but socially and in their attitudes about the future,” he said. “It’s amazing to see.”

As if the transformation weren’t inspiring enough, the ultimate success is seen when seniors come in with their acceptance letters, excited to show staff and often with more choices than they expected they’d have. They now have the privilege of picking their school.

Thao credits the volunteer opportunities of his college days for his finding his passion and excitement for helping others.

“If it weren't for my volunteering experiences and adventures with Suffolk University, I am positive I would not be where I am today,” he said. “I hope to share my experiences and hopefully inspire others to get involved in their communities.”