Then she heard about student support services, and everything changed.
“My two friends were in the program and they kept pestering me about it and made sure I turned in my application,” says Lakeisha. “If not for SSS, I wouldn’t be here today as a senior.”
Student support services is one of the University’s least publicized programs. Tucked away at the end of a hallway on the second floor of the Gallagher Student Center, it has a lounge area, a receptionist’s desk and three small offices for the director and two counselors. Despite its diminutive size, the people who work in this office have a huge impact on the lives of the students they serve. Backed by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, student support services—one of a collection of federal assistance programs collectively called TRiO—seeks out those students whose life experiences leave them at risk in the complex world of college.
The program’s primary focus is on students who are the first in their families to attend college. Of Xavier’s freshman class this year, 27 percent are so-called first generation college students—up from 25 percent last year. These students tend to have experienced more difficulties and have less money than their better-heeled peers, and because they’re first, there’s likely no one in their families who knows the complexities of financial aid forms, housing applications or how to juggle multiple course loads.
“For years we were a Jesuit school for the Catholic population of Cincinnati, and we made lots of opportunities for kids to go to college,” says Jim McCoy, associate vice president for enrollment services. “Now we’re recognizing that government supports education of first-generation students, and it’s natural for us to go for the TRiO grant. It’s important because it validates our history and supports young people who are first generation and need to go to a school like Xavier.” The program, which is entering its fourth and final year of the grant, has served students with about 10 workshops each year on how to succeed in college. Topics include study skills, test-taking strategies, speed reading and finding a job. Each student is assigned a counselor who helps with course selections, financial issues and, in some cases, personal problems. They also offer tutoring and remedial help.
“If you don’t know how to wade through it, it’s very easy for students to quickly feel they don’t belong here,” says Sarah Kelley, associate vice president for student development. “We catch students quicker because they have an ongoing relationship with their counselors.” The program also sponsors trips to give students more worldly experiences, such as to Chicago and Pennsylvania.
For some students, it’s their first time outside Ohio.
Xavier already has a successful student retention program, which boasts a record 90 percent freshman retention rate. But the students in the TRiO program have more ongoing needs, and the program’s counselors keep tabs on their students through graduation. Students also may receive additional dollars from the University to make ends meet throughout the year.
Since Amy Reed took over as director last year, the percentage of first-generation students enrolling at Xavier has increased, and more are graduating. This year, 45 students in the program graduated—double the 20 who graduated last year. Reed expects about 60 to graduate in the spring. A total of 206 had been helped through last May.
Of the 160 students in the program in the 2003-2004 school year, 52 percent were both first-generation and low-income, meeting federal income guidelines. About half the group was African American, and 75 percent were women. Most are from lower to middle class families, Reed says.
The program began in the 2001-2002 school year after Kelley wrote a grant to document the need on Xavier’s campus. It brought in more than $800,000 to be spent over four years, while the University offers up to $300,000 a year in financial aid to students as the need arises.
“I have seen a lot of success for a lot of the students we’ve helped,” Reed says.
Like Heather Steinke. She graduated in May after receiving financial aid that she says allowed her to finish her degree at Xavier. “I always had somebody to talk to,” she says of her counselor. Apparently, it’s paying off. Heather had a summer job at a local accounting firm doing auditing and tax work while studying for the C.P.A. exam. She plans on returning to Xavier for a master’s degree.