Bridging the poverty gap: CMC program strives to help low-income, 1st-generation students

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— The students who walk into the Colorado Mountain College’s Student Success office are, more often than not, looking for help and direction.

TRiO Program Director Laurie Marano has seen them all, from single mothers in their 20s toting two kids to the 50-year-old return student fighting an uphill battle in an aggressively competitive workforce.

Bridging the poverty gap

In an area where living expenses are above average and wealth isn’t uncommon, tough economic times can hide in the county’s crevices. The Routt County Bridges Initiative aims to educate those in and out of poverty about the resources available for those still experiencing hardship.

Their stories and appearances may vary, but one thing remains a near-constant for every student interested in the TRiO program to help them on their degree-to-career path.

“The program’s main targets are low-income and first-generation students,” Marano said. “They usually go hand in hand. And since the recession, we’ve seen more low-income-only students, where parents have college but are struggling through the recession.”

TRiO at CMC has been around since 1997, but the program boasts deep roots nationwide. This year marks its 50th national anniversary, with roughly 1,000 Student Support Services offices offering its benefits.

It began as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, in which the original three programs became the first of their kind in the U.S., addressing social and cultural barriers in education.

Today, more than 2,800 TRiO programs are integrated with student support services on various campuses. Marano and TRiO Coordinator Amy Phillips estimate that nearly 790,000 low-income, first-generation students in American colleges are enrolled.

TRiO is a grant-funded program on a five-year cycle. Marano said that because the grant cycles can be extremely competitive, applicants must outline community needs and highlight necessary data, most importantly about first-generation and low-income students and families.

The program aims for students to open their own door in a post-community college world, with a bachelor’s degree the primary goal.

“A lot of what we do is help them figure out what it would look like and what they want to have for a degree,” Marano said. “If they can figure that part out, then we research what schools offer those programs and we decide if we are going to visit there.”

Students get an all-expense-paid visit to the school or schools they have their eyes on. They meet with professors, walk the campus and get an in-person feel for the school they wish to transfer to when their associate degree is wrapped up at CMC.

But TRiO goes beyond boarding students onto a bus and shipping them off for a tour at a nearby four-year university. Marano and the student support services staff often act as one-on-one advisers, helping students discover financial aid, fill out scholarship applications and become the first in their family to graduate with a bachelor’s in hand.

When students apply for TRiO benefits, they first fill out a needs self-assessment, outlining transportation, housing, health, financial and personal roadblocks they currently face. From there, Marano and company formulate an action plan — a road map of sorts.

Beginning Tuesday, the Student Success Center will hold its next line of classes, with seminars focusing on interview skills, financial literacy and approaching the stress of college finals.

It’s a program designed to put the tools into the students’ hands. Help is available, Marano said; it’s just a matter of walking through her door and finding it.

“Our program, I feel like we don’t do that much,” Marano said. “But for students who don’t know how to navigate the system, it’s enough to give them that little bit of help they need.”

To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll

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