Minority, low-income and first-gen students find needed support
At first glance, Ashley Perez might not have seemed like a prime candidate for college. Getting B’s and C’s while attending a high school in inner-city Miami, she spent more time worrying about her Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) activities, at which she excelled, than studying for class. And her college entrance exams indicated poor math skills.
And yet Perez, from a family that struggled financially, had a desire to attend FIU and set her mind to getting in. During a campus visit her senior year, the young woman’s determination impressed then-recruiter Courtenay McClain.
“I really saw something in her, and I knew if she got the opportunity she would take it and run with it,” McClain recalls. “I ended up making sure that I kept my eye on her throughout the [admissions] process.”
When Perez fell a bit short of FIU’s entrance requirements, McClain got her enrolled in the Golden Scholars Bridge Program, a six-week session of intensive math and other courses, tutoring and one-on-one advising intended to jumpstart college careers. The program targets students who exhibit high potential but need extra support, often because they lack college-educated role models in their families and have great financial need. They live on campus to minimize outside distractions.
“It makes it a lot easier for them to open up and acclimate to the university environment,” says McClain, who sees their relief in not having to stress about money as they focus on their studies. The 50 or so students who annually participate in the Golden Scholars Program receive assistance through various scholarships.
Today Perez serves as an example of just what is possible when an institution concentrates resources on those who need them most. The communications arts major is on track to graduate in the spring, just four years after starting at FIU, and has earned straight A’s for the last two semesters, landing her on the dean’s list. A work-study student in FIU’s Office of Sustainability, she is weighing whether to look for a full-time job after earning her degree or beginning a graduate program in environmental studies.
“Once I got to FIU, I feel like I really learned the value of education,” Perez says. “I’ve branched out so much.” Beyond her all-important introductory summer, she credits McClain’s continued mentorship and the availability of free tutoring as key to her achievement. Without that, she says, “I don’t know where I would be.”
And while Perez benefited greatly from the help once she arrived on campus, FIU has programs in place to land even younger students on a path to higher education.
Jose Filpo directs FIU’s federally funded Educational Talent Search, which at any given time serves 500 low-income students in grades 6-12. The youngsters, enrolled in targeted schools within Miami-Dade, are individually selected because they show promise, and each receives guidance in the form of mentoring, college tours, ACT prep courses and financial aid workshops.
The goal is to keep the best and brightest from falling through the cracks.
“We can’t assume that because a student is smart and has potential that somebody in the [school] district will find them and guide them,” Filpo says, citing a shortfall in counselors within the public schools. The program specifically looks for students who “you knew that they were going to be successful but they just needed somebody to keep them on that track.”
Those efforts have proven results. The rates of high school graduation and subsequent matriculation (at FIU and elsewhere) among the participating students outright crush the school district averages.
The Golden Scholars Program and Educational Talent Search are just two of the numerous ways that FIU is trying to level the playing field for young people who start out at a disadvantage. FIU’s Office of Student Access and Success works with underrepresented youngsters to encourage a college-going mindset so that they complete degrees that, ultimately, lead to fulfilling careers.
FIU’s homegrown, nationally recognized Education Effect and the federally funded Upward Bound programs, for example, collaborate with local secondary schools to offer students academic preparation, counseling and enrichment activities. And a robotics afterschool club and summer camp for middle schoolers aim to funnel youngsters into STEM fields.
These and other centralized efforts are complemented by the outreach activities of many of FIU’s academic units. For example, the College of Engineering & Computing runs a program of tutoring and mentoring to help African-American high schoolers pass the AP computer science exam, which should foster an interest in college attendance.
“This office was created in order to bring about greater synergy across the university, to make sure that we’re working collaboratively so that we can be very intentional,” says Jaffus Hardrick, vice provost for Access & Success. His office, created two years ago, gathers together FIU’s signature support programs under one umbrella, including ongoing opportunities and services for enrolled students. These include the McNair Scholars Program, which preps first-gen and minority students to go on to pursue graduate degrees in the sciences, and the Invitational Scholars Program.
And the payoff is there: First-generation students currently graduate from FIU “on time” (defined as within six years) at a higher rate (60 percent) than non-first-generation students (57 percent); low-income students—defined as those who receive federal PELL grants as part of their financial aid package—graduate at a higher rate (58 percent) than do students not receiving Pell grants (56 percent).
That record is earning FIU national recognition. Recently the university was invited to participate in the American Association of College’s and University’s “Committing to Equity and Inclusive Excellence: Campus-Based Strategies for Student Success” initiative.
“We were one of the 12 institutions selected primarily because we do have some best practices in place, and we are making a considerable effort in terms of having an impact on closing the gap, in making sure that we’re making education available for all who desire to go to school,” Hardrick says.
The objectives of the initiative—to promote academic achievement among low-income, first-generation and minority students—directly align with the priorities of FIU’s Beyond Possible 2020 strategic plan and recognize the need to grow a larger and more diverse pool of talent.
“The reality is that we have more jobs than we do people with the skillset to fill these jobs,” Hardrick says. “That’s why businesses are weighing in so heavily on the educational divide, because they need minority students. They need black males, they need Latino males, they need Latina females, in engineering, in computer science and all these critical areas because that’s where the future is going. It is literally about global competition.”
And without more programs across the country of the type already in place at FIU, he adds, “There is no way we can continue to move forward as a nation.”