University of Pennsylvania

Veterans Upward Bound

Alumni Profiles

Veterans Upward Bound  at Penn Prepares Former Soldier for Engineering Success

Media Contact:Jill DiSanto


August 27, 2014

Tyrell McCurbin

Tyrell McCurbin is a man with determination.

The 28-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native served for four years in the United States Army and is now a junior studying mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and Applied Science. But, his time at Penn didn't start out so smoothly a decade ago.

Back then, he wasn't doing well in his classes. He lacked the focus that he needed, and he was afraid to seek help. McCurbin soon found himself on academic probation and then didn't return to Penn the following year. He enlisted in the U.S. Army. As an intelligence analyst, his military service took him around the world, from South Carolina to Japan to Hawaii to Iraq.

"My goal in enlisting was to regain my focus, rebuild my credentials and hopefully get back into Penn," McCurbin says. "The Army taught me many lessons, but the most valuable to me was the importance of great communication, which is the key to success in any environment, organization or relationship."

In 2011, he earned an associate's degree from an Arizona culinary school, but McCurbin says he realized that, although he enjoyed creating masterpieces in the kitchen and could whip up a cr�me br�l�e at a moment's notice, he needed something more intellectually stimulating.

"Mechanical engineering would provide that mental challenge that I needed by mixing math and science with design," he says.

He applied for re-admission to Penn Engineering.

McCurbin was accepted on the condition that he complete the TRIO Veterans Upward Bound program, a free, non-credited, pre-college program that prepares eligible, under-represented Philadelphia-area veterans to get into college, achieve academic success and complete degrees.

Funded by a grant from the Office of Postsecondary Education in the U.S. Department of Education, Veterans Upward Bound falls under Penn's Office of Equity & Access programs. It also aligns with the principles of increasing access and engaging locally outlined in President Amy Gutmann's Penn Compact 2020

"It's not often in life that we get a second chance to fix our biggest mistake," McCurbin says. "This was that rare second chance, and I wasn't going to pass it up. I was more motivated than ever before."

McCurbin enrolled in the program in the spring of 2012, taking the highest-level classes in math, Spanish, reading, writing and science. While in the program, he helped other former military personnel excel in math as a peer tutor and graduated from Veterans Upward Bound in only one semester.

Because it was so challenging and kept him focused on academics, he says, it greatly helped with his transition from soldier to student, as he re-developed his study habits and prepared to re-enter academia.

"Both the faculty and the staff at Veterans Upward Bound are very supportive," McCurbin says. "They do whatever they can to help their students succeed. I was even able to take advantage of their transportation funding, which provided me with SEPTA tokens to get to and from campus on the days that I had class."

Veterans Upward Bound also provides comprehensive support services, like academic and personal counseling, applying for Veterans Administration benefits, acquiring military transcripts and attending workshops. The staff even helped McCurbin apply for financial aid, including Penn's no-loan, all-grant program, which supplements his Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits from the VA.

"Penn is a great school where we put our focus on interdisciplinary learning and diversity," McCurbin says. "This puts Penn ahead of the curve and at the forefront of all of the latest advances in research and technology, allowing students here to easily obtain a well-rounded experience."

Today, McCurbin is actively involved in the National Society of Black Engineers and the Formula Society of Automotive Engineers team, Penn Electric Racing. He's spent recent summers interning at Toyota and Tesla Motors.

He plans to sub-matriculate into the robotics master's program at Penn and graduate in the spring of 2017 with both a bachelor's and a master's degree, thanks to Veterans Upward Bound.

"Without going through the program, I would have likely had a more difficult transition back to Penn," McCurbin says. "I would highly recommend it for any veterans who have been out of college for a while and would like to further their education. They have earned it."