Kennebec Valley Community College has received a $1.7 million grant that will allow a program that supports at-risk students to continue for five more years. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file photo

Kennebec Valley Community College has been awarded a $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to continue funding a program that supports at-risk students for another five years.

The TRIO Support Services Program, which was established at KVCC in 1993, provides services that aid at-risk students in their academic and professional pursuits, according to Program Director Lisa Black.

“There are federal TRIO programs all over the country, and they started in the 1960s as part of the war on poverty,” Black said. “And the goal really for all TRIO programs is to assist students from under represented backgrounds to earn college degrees.”

“Data does show higher education and advanced degrees are the best means to reliably lift people out of poverty,” Black said.

To be eligible for the program, students must meet federal income eligibility guidelines, be a “first generation” college student or have a documented disability.

Students must also be a U.S. citizen or legal resident and working on their first college degree.

The five main services that TRIO provides to its students are academic advising, tutoring, financial literacy courses, assistance with transferring to a four-year institution and counseling support.

“We’ve had a grant since 1993 here at the college, and we’ve had the same mission,” said Karen Normandin, KVCC’s dean of student affairs and enrollment. “That is the completion of a degree, the transfer to a four-year institution, the persistence from one semester to the next for the students.” 

Receiving the grant to continue helping students is something Black said she and the rest of the TRIO team is incredibly grateful for.

“It’s extraordinary when you think about the barriers that our students come to us with and that they’re able to do that in greater numbers than their peers who are not in TRIO. I think it really speaks to the power of the program,” Black said.

“And the network that students form with each other, they are all here because they want this. They know the path that this will present for them and their families to have a better life. And daily, we work with students that overcome incredible odds in order to stay in school. It really is very humbling and amazing,” Black said.

In addition to Black, the TRIO program at KVCC is run by Michelle Bardsley, a first year student coordinator; Landi Wright, a math and science learning specialist; and Zander Walz, a student success coach.

In order to keep the TRIO program going, schools must demonstrate that the services actually work to benefit the students involved, something that KVCC has proven time and time again.

“Last year, 86% of KV TRIO participants persisted to the next academic year, did not drop out of school,” Black said in an email Tuesday. And “97% had grade point averages in good academic standing, 76% graduated within 4 years with an associate’s degree or certificate and 19% transferred to a 4-year school after graduating.”

Since 1993, KVCC’s TRIO program has served approximately 180 students each year.

On Tuesday, the college kicked off its annual Push Week Orientation for new and returning TRIO students.

What is typically a four-day in-person event has been modified to a smaller online format due to the restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Normally it’s at least four days Tuesday through Friday in person … and we have all kinds of in-person activities,” Black said. “But this year we really scaled it back and we revamped our programming for this specific online experience …” 

Since KVCC has adopted a hybrid learning model for its upcoming semester, this year’s orientation has been focused on getting students acclimated to learning remotely.

“We always talk about time management, but this year it’s focused on managing your time in an online environment,” Black said. “You’re at home, you have family all around you, there’s lots of distractions. It’s harder to stay motivated I think in an online environment so we’re really shoring up our programming with that in mind.” 

As a way to help TRIO students stay focused under the new hybrid model, the program has assigned new students and returning students to hold each other accountable, according to Black.

“We’re doing a program called accountability partners where we’re pairing our incoming students with continuing students in their majors, and they’ll pick a time with that person to each week check in,” Black said. “The continuing will ask, ‘how’s your homework going?’ And sort of help to identify barriers before they become insurmountable to make sure students are able to stay motivated and accountable during their experience this semester.”

Black said that although the pandemic has brought on an added amount of stress to TRIO students, the program can provide some relief with its services.

“To be in TRIO, you’re already at risk, and so the pandemic has put students who were already risky at greater risk of dropping out,” Black said. “I think TRIO is one of the lifelines that can be a safety net. We can plan for things like some of our students have spotty internet and knowing that we can be really proactive … I’m really grateful that we’re able to provide that for our students. So many students are kind of just out there. It’s not that the will isn’t there. It’s the support system maybe is shakier for students.” 

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