Actress Aunjanue Ellis brought a touch of Hollywood glamour to Thursday's 2011 Upward Bound of Buffalo State College Summer Program Awards Banquet in Hyatt Regency Buffalo.
But even more than a glamorous visage, Ellis -- who has acted opposite such stars as Jamie Foxx and Cuba Gooding Jr. in such films as "Ray" and "Men of Honor" -- brought a story of perseverance and the importance that education has played in her life to share with the youngsters being awarded.
"Upward Bound is one of these programs that is in jeopardy because of the budget cuts happening on the federal level," said Ellis, just prior to the start of the banquet.
"I was never an Upward Bound student, but I was one of these kids who was raised by a single parent and could have fallen through the cracks unless someone pulled me out and helped me up," added Ellis, who grew up in Mississippi.
There are three Upward Bound programs in Buffalo, operated by Buffalo State, the University at Buffalo and D'Youville College. Upward Bound is a transitional, high school-to-college preparatory program. The 78 students in the summer program at Buffalo State spend six weeks during the summer in intensive preparation for the rigors of college. Five days a week, they have a long academic day with breaks only for meals, recreation and study, explained Kenneth Vargas, resident director for the summer program.
Don Patterson, director of Upward Bound at Buffalo State, said Ellis was suggested to him as a keynote speaker by his niece. "I told her: 'I'm looking for somebody to be the keynote speaker for this Upward Bound banquet who can inspire and who [students] can relate to.' "
When Ellis' name came up, Patterson recognized it from her appearance in what he describes as one of his Top 5 movies, "Men of Honor," which is the life story of Carl Brashear, the first African-American deep sea diver who persevered at the Naval Academy. Ellis portrayed the librarian who helped steer Brashear on the right path academically.
"Once I Googled [Ellis] and reviewed her educational background and where she's at in her life right now, it just fit right in. They can relate to her, and once they hear her story, they're going to know there are no short cuts, and that's what you really want to get them to understand," Patterson said.
"There was a period in my life, that I think we all go through, where I didn't know what I wanted to do. At that time, someone came into my life and said I think you should try to act, and he pushed me and pulled me and put this path in front of me and I went to graduate school, got an agent and I started getting jobs," Ellis recalled.
In her line of work, Ellis -- whose first name is pronounced "ingenue" -- counsels young actors. "I think they want to hear that I was sitting at a drugstore counter and Spike Lee came in and said: 'I want you to be in [films],' " said Ellis.
"But that didn't happen. I went to college. I went to graduate school and because I went to graduate school, it was set up that agents would come in and look at your work, which is how I got an agent. I had three years of hard work," she added.