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Mike Krings/University Relations

Sean Alvarado, an adviser at Academic Programs for Excellence, displays one of his paintings as well as the logo he designed for GEAR UP, a program that stresses the importance of higher education to children in Kansas City, Kan., public housing at a recent exhibit of his work. A member of the 1988 KU national champion basketball team, Alvarado recently returned to KU.

Championing Kids

Alvarado uses art, athletic past to stress education to youth

By Mike Krings

From growing up in Trinidad and public housing in Washington, D.C., to cutting down the nets as an NCAA national champion, Sean Alvarado has proven that a person can succeed despite challenging obstacles. Now he's stressing the vital component of success – education – to kids in Kansas City, Kan., public housing.

Alvarado, a 1990 KU grad with a bachelor of fine arts degree and a member of the 1988 national championship basketball team, rejoined the university in March as an adviser at Academic Programs for Excellence, known as APEX. He works with GEAR UP, Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed academically.

Above, one of the paintings displayed at Alvarado's recent show, "Everday Faces, Everyday Places" in Strong Hall.

"It's a program that helps inner-city kids gain awareness of the importance of higher education," Alvarado said. "We do whatever we can to support the families and kids at the housing projects."

There are several GEAR UP projects in the United States, but the one based at APEX is the only program that works specifically with kids who live in public housing. The six-year partnership is funded at about $500,000 per year by the U.S. Department of Education, said Maritza Machado-Williams, director of APEX.

Alvarado has traveled a long path to APEX. A native of Trinidad, he later grew up in Washington, D.C., public housing. A gifted young artist, he was influenced by the work of Jacob Lawrence, Ernie Barnes and Stephen Scott Young. Also a talented athlete, he was a basketball standout and came to KU to earn an art degree and play basketball. He helped KU win a national championship in 1988 before graduating in 1990. For three years he played professional basketball overseas before a knee injury changed his career course.

"That threw me into the academic realm," he said.

In 2004, he earned his master's degree in school counseling from Wilmington College in Georgetown, Del. He began counseling kids in school suspension before coming back to KU.

Through it all, he maintained his love of art. Recently he hosted an exhibition of his art titled "Everyday Faces, Everyday Places" in Strong Hall. The exhibit was also a way to celebrate the GEAR UP program, for which he designed the logo.

"The art is excellent and really represents his work and passion as a painter," Machado-Williams said of Alvarado's watercolor and charcoal works.

The works live up to the title, showing people in unguarded moments of their lives.

"A lot of them reflect everyday people. I try to capture a little more than just a person and an environment. My goal is to engage the viewer and create a connection," Alvarado said.

The face of one notable Kansan stands out among the work. Gordon Parks, the noted filmmaker, artist, poet and musician, is the subject of one of Alvarado's paintings. Poet Langston Hughes also has inspired his art. Alvarado has taken students to Fort Scott, Parks' birthplace, to show that Kansans from meager backgrounds can succeed.

"They say they can't do it, but I know they can," Alvarado said of the students he helps mentor. "Everybody goes through different experiences in life. You never know what's going to happen in the long run. That's what I try to share with other people."

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