TRIO programs support first-generation students

Zachary Ezzone

College students whose parents never earned a bachelor’s degree, or first-generation students, are one of the most vulnerable groups when it comes to graduation rates.

According to a report completed by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA in 2011, only 27 percent of first-generation students graduate from college in the traditional four years, 45 percent graduate in five years and 50 percent graduate in six years.

These numbers are significantly lower than students whose parents do have a college degree. For these students, 42 percent graduate in four years, 60 percent graduate in five years and 64 percent graduate in six years. 

In order to help improve graduation rates for these students, the U.S. Department of Education has established federally-funded student support services programs or TRIO programs administered by different universities throughout the country. The first program, Upward Bound, started in 1964. Since then, seven more have been established.

Thomas Jefferson, director of the Classic Academy Upward Bound program at Kent State, said his team currently serves 118 students from Barberton High School, Warren G. Harding High School and Akron Buchtel High School. Jefferson said the overall goal of the program is to provide college access opportunities to students and to encourage students to finish high school and then afterwards go to college.

Jefferson said each school that’s served has an after-school program one day each week, with staff members present throughout the entire day. This provides staff with a chance to speak with students, guidance counselors, teachers and principals in order discuss how a student is doing and what more can be done to help.

Jefferson said the program has a good relationship with all of the schools it works with and that they have the ability to call students down to the office in order to be able to speak with them about their progress.

When choosing the different schools to work with, it comes down to identifying the schools and school districts that have a need for the program, Jefferson said. The focus is always on first-generation and low-income students. Staff members go to ninth grade orientations, open houses at the beginning of the school year and give presentations in classrooms in order to inform students of the program and what it is has to offer.

Following that, the student must go through an application and interview process before being selected for the program. This is important because once a student is part of the program, they are part of it for the rest of their high school career. Jefferson also said that after a student graduates from high school, the program tracks the students for up to six years in order to see how, or if, they’ve continued their education

There are six objectives for the federal government that the program must report on and meet each year, Jefferson said. These include: 80 percent of students must have a 2.5 or better GPA, 85 percent of students must graduate or continue to the next grade level, 85 percent of students must pass their end of course exams, 60 percent of students must complete a rigorous high school curriculum, 80 percent of students must begin college the fall after graduation and 50 percent of students must complete their college degree within six years of their high school graduation

In order to meet these objectives and in a way to conceptualize what students will gain from the program, Jefferson and his team came up with four guiding principles for the program: education, leadership, opportunity and family. 

When it comes to opportunity, Jefferson said that it’s earned opportunity through dedication and participation. For example, the program sent 12 students to the state student leadership conference in Cincinnati.

The program also sends some graduating seniors, who plan on coming to Kent State in the fall, to Florence, Italy, in the summer to take two classes for five to six weeks. Jefferson said part of the reason the program does things like this is to show the students that there is more to life outside of their high school and the community they grew up in.

Another important federal program at Kent State is TRIO. While Upward Bound works to prepare high school students for college, TRIO provides tutoring, mentoring and workshops to first-generation students, low-income students and students registered with Student Accessibility Services while enrolled.

Cason Brunt, Academic Program director of TRIO, said that students who sign up with the program are provided with a great community of support and people who are really advocating for their success.

“We’re very genuine, caring and considerate with all of our students.” Brunt said. “And I think that provides a space for them to thoroughly understand that they have support here … (and) also gives them an opportunity to flourish, where that may not otherwise be the case.”

Brunt said every student who signs up for the program has additional advising requirements and must met with a staff member at least twice a semester to touch base and to discuss any challenges, both academically and non-academically. Students are also required to sign-up for tutoring for at least one of their classes. Brunt said the program often recommends students receive tutoring in certain courses that are historically difficult. 

There is also a student support services program in place to help students further their education after they’ve completed their bachelor’s degree. Dondrea Brown, is the Associate Director of the McNair Scholars Program, which serves around 30 students a year who are first-generation or low-income students. 

Brown said the program is in place to help students get into graduate school, graduate and then earn their Ph.D. within 10 years of getting their bachelor’s degree. Some of the services provided by the McNair Scholars Program include: graduate test prep courses, practice GRE exams, partial GRE waivers for students, graduate school visits, bi-weekly seminars and research development in the summer called the Summer Research Institute. 

For the Summer Research Institute, students are paired with a faculty mentor in which they are able to work with, determine their area of interest and learn how research is conducted based on the subject area. Brown said the program also offers a course in the summer on what general research methods entail, which also helps facilitate the relationship between student and faculty mentor. 

Because the program only serves 30 students a year, it is extremely competitive. Students must have a 3.0 GPA, and while there is an application process, acceptance mainly depends on the interview.

 “They’re very similar from the application standpoint,” Brown said, “It is more the interview in which we are able to see what the scholars are thinking about and get a sense for their motivation and inspiration.”

Brown, a McNair Scholars alum, knows firsthand how vital the program can be to a student’s success.

 “It allows them to be exposed to opportunities—research opportunities—opportunities to talk to faculty mentors (and) opportunities to really think about what their role is,” Brown said.

“I think it is very important for our scholars to understand and develop an idea of where they want their career—academic or personal path—to lead, and also to be exposed to small experiences that can be attributed to strengthening their motivation to pursue certain goals.”

A first-generation student himself, Brown understands the different struggles and challenges this group of students deal with when going to college.

He said one of the key challenges he experienced was not knowing about the different resources and support services available to him on campus. Brown also said there are levels of expectations when a student come to college that first-generation students may not be used to. 

“At certain levels there are expectations of students understanding certain content, certain ways to talk, certain ways to act, certain ways to conduct,” Brown said, “but for first-generation students without really having that exposure, I think it challenges their thinking.”

Brunt also agreed that one of the bigger struggles for first-generation students is not just the academic component, but for the student to understand the different resources and support offered on campus.   

“There is a level of, if your parent went to college they are able to say, these are the things that will help you prepare for college,” Brunt said, “but also once you get to college, the resources that are available to support you in a way that is going to be helpful.”

Jefferson said that one of the things he sees a lot with the first-generation students he’s worked with is that they often come from a community where a lot of their friends and family haven’t gone to college. There is a fear they will grow apart from their community once they go off to college and then come back home, he said.

“They see a better future, they see a better life, but also—on the other hand—they may see that their family, or community or friends … may not be pulling in the same direction as they are,” Jefferson said. “That can be really trying (and) really rough.”

Zachary Ezzone is an administration reporter at The Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].