Students in field

TRIO SSS has proven track record

December 10, 2018

TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) has three goals: help students persist from one grade level to the next, remain in satisfactory academic progress and graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

TRIO SSS, a federal Department of Education grant-program, created out of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, considers family income level, education level of the parents and the possession of a physical or learning disability to determine eligibility to become a TRIO SSS student. The project is funded for five-year cycles and has been at Finlandia since the 1980s as a result of the success it’s seen.

“We are funded to serve 180 students and we always hit that number,” said Director of TRIO SSS, Cindy Cowell. “Always.”

The numbers for TRIO SSS are impressive. Nationally, 33 percent of first generation learners leave college after their first or second year. For Finlandia TRIO SSS students, that number is 20 percent. Just about 80 percent of Finlandia’s TRIO SSS students persist from one grade level to the next. As far as academic standing, 79 percent of TRIO SSS students remained in good academic standing in the 2017-18 school year.

While TRIO does provide tutoring, Cowell says their holistic approach to the student is what ultimately helps them to succeed. Cowell and her team try to meet with students a minimum of three times per semester. They meet with every student at the beginning of the semester and fill out an academic career plan. They also fill out a detailed form to address potential challenges, likes and dislikes when it comes to academics, and any resources used in the past that helped them.

The second time they meet with students is at midterms to discuss how they’re progressing.

“At midterm time, I’ll say, ‘You can still hit your goals, it took you seven weeks to earn this grade. You still have equally as much time to improve or maintain it,’” said Cowell.

Cowell and the TRIO academic coaches also try to meet with students before finals to see if they need any additional support going into finals week,  are registered for their next semester and if they still feel confident about their major.

“We’re really good at the behind-the-scenes support,” said Cowell. “If someone is struggling, they may not know or realize there are resources on campus that can help them. So those behind-the-scenes support things are really where we connect with our students and, as result of doing that, students maintain good academic progress.”

TRIO SSS also educates instructors about issues facing TRIO students.

Cowell once had a science instructor approach her because several students in her classroom hadn’t purchased the course book and began falling behind. Cowell explained to the instructor that many students, especially TRIO eligible students, can experience imposter syndrome and feel as though they don’t actually belong in college.

“She told me, ‘I don’t know why they don’t tell me they don’t have books,’ and I explained to her that they may not want to call attention to themselves in the classroom,” said Cowell. “If a student perceives everyone else in the class to have books and they don’t have books, it only reinforces the thought that they’re an imposter and not a real college student .”

While the three main goals of TRIO SSS are purely academic, TRIO SSS supports the whole student experience. Peer mentoring, professional student conferences, cultural experiences and graduate school information are just a few of the experiences that TRIO SSS students can take advantage of outside of the tutoring and learning center.

Sophie Rutkowski, an academic career coach at TRIO SSS, is in her second semester with the program. In addition to working with 30-40 students per week as an academic coach, Rutowski’s other function is to help students in their career search.

“It’s nice for the students to have somebody specifically related to giving the one-on-one attention they might need for learning how to write a resume, making corrections to it and how to find a job,” said Rutkowski. “Most of the students are first generation and don’t know a lot about undergrad, so having a position that teaches them about graduate school is also helpful for them.”

One student who is already thinking about graduate school as a result of TRIO is sophomore De’Llonate Johnson. Johnson attended a leadership conference at Battle Creek with TRIO last year and said it is one of his favorite memories.

“On the trip, we got a chance to see Grand Valley State’s graduate school,” said Johnson. “It helped by expanding our minds and worldview of the things we can do after undergrad.”

TRIO SSS also understands the importance of extracurricular and team-building activities to help students have a holistic college experience.

“We bought tickets for Steve ‘N’ Seagulls for four of our students so they could have that cultural experience.  College costs can be prohibitive to students in budgeting for extra curricular experiences. We are happy to be able to support these kinds of activities because it helps a student to continue to develop and get stronger as they work toward graduation .” said Cowell. “We were really excited to be able to sponsor two sophomore students, De’Llonate Johnson and Tyler Browner, to travel to the University of Iowa for a Men of Excellence leadership conference this summer. This is just one example of a lot of personal development and skill building opportunities we take advantage of.”

Cowell is hopeful for the future of TRIO SSS and the success they’ve seen. This year, the National Center for Education Statistics released an important statistic about first generation college learners.

“When first gens earn their bachelor’s degree and go out into the world of employment, there’s no difference in earnings between the continuing generation bachelor learners and the first gens,” Cowell said. “Once they get that degree and are employed, the playing field has been leveled out.”

The goals and work of the program lies in walking with students until they cross that graduation stage. Cowell’s best analogy for what TRIO SSS does revolves around a chair.

“The chair you sit on has to have four legs all the same length to stand solidly on the floor,” she said. “The students we serve, everything about the chair is the same, but one leg is a little short. It could be in academic preparation, social or emotional skills, cultural experiences, or knowledge of majors and resulting career opportunities. Over the four or five years that the students are enrolled at Finlandia, we work with them, assist with skill building or offering experiences and this builds on the chair one skill at a time. Students stand solidly on the ground by the time they graduate.”

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