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$1.1M grant will fund TRiO program five more years

ISSUED: 17 August 2015
MEDIA CONTACT: Valerie Owens

SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — Students at Shepherd University who need extra assistance with succeeding at college will continue getting it thanks to a $1.1 million grant just awarded by the U.S. Department of Education. The money will pay for Shepherd’s TRiO Student Support Services program, which helps students who are first-generation college students, have disabilities, or who meet income guidelines set by the federal education department.

The TRiO program just finished its fifth year, and the grant will allow it to continue for another five years according to Cynthia Copney, the program’s director. She said TRiO’s primary focus is encouraging students to stay in college from one academic year to the next, remain in good academic standing, and graduate on time. TRiO is funded to serve 160 students, but Copney said it always exceeds that goal. She said one year the program served as many as 184 students.

“I think the first generation is the one that’s very powerful for the students because in typical daily life when people have problems, they want to talk to someone who’s been through what they’ve gone through,” Copney said. “For first-generation students, their parents can’t help them. They have the same issues that any other college student has except it’s more difficult for them because they don’t have a background for navigating the collegiate environment.”

TRiO helps students with everything from developing time management skills and setting goals, to just getting the nerve to sit down and have a conversation with a professor. It also offers academic advising and help with financial aid.

Copney said every student in the program has to create an individual success plan outlining long- and short-term goals. An academic retention specialist meets with students twice a year to verify they are on track with the objectives in the plan. She said starting this semester two graduate assistants who are certified to be math and writing tutors will also work with the students.

“Every student is required to take a math or writing class, and those seem to be the areas where the students have the most difficulty,” she said.

Copney said TRiO has had great success meeting its goals of persistence, retention, good academic standing, and graduation. Last year the good academic standing rate was 93 percent, the persistence rate was 86 percent, and in May the first 37 TRiO students graduated.

“So we are exceeding all of our program goals and objectives,” Copney said. “We have a lot of support from every department at Shepherd, a dedicated staff and faculty, and students who want to be successful. The strategies we have put into place are working, and we’ve met our goal every year that we’ve had the program.”

Copney said she and TRiO’s two academic retention specialists, Evora Baker and Michelle Ricketts, find working with the students rewarding, especially since they are all first-generation college students themselves.

“We have been where our students are today, so we can identify with their struggles,” Copney said. “Sometimes I can anticipate the problems the students are going to have before they know they’re going to have the problem.”

Baker said it was the students who motivated her as she did her part to help write the grant.

“I understand how well TRiO works,” Baker said. “For many of our students this is their home away from home, and for some of them this is the only home or family that they have. It’s those students I was most concerned about as we entered the grant competition. I knew we had to be here so that we can service those students.”

Baker and Ricketts can each recall students they’ve worked with of whom they are particularly proud.

“One student who comes to mind was homeless and in poor academic standing,” Baker said. “We kind of took him under our wings. We helped him find housing, and other students came together to provide clothing and food. The student was eventually on the dean’s list several times and recently graduated. He just took a job working for some type of software company where he’s going to be making a pretty decent living.”

Ricketts recalls working with a student who graduated in May who, when she first came to TRiO, was failing all her classes. After getting guidance from the TRiO program, that student was on the dean’s list several semesters and graduated on time.

“It was such a big accomplishment for her,” Ricketts said. “She honestly didn’t think she would ever see that day.”

“I’m just thrilled about the grant renewal,” said Dr. Laura Renninger, dean of teaching, learning, and instructional resources. “I think we need this at Shepherd for these students who are really bright, want to be here, and want to do well. To have this cheering squad and kind of family away from home that helps them stay on track is really important.

“This grant also shows that it is possible, through excellent teamwork like what is demonstrated by our TRiO faculty, to write and receive a substantial grant at Shepherd that greatly enhances student retention and success,” Renninger said. “Kudos to our TRiO team for doing just this.”

“Our students are identified as being at risk—and they are at risk—but it’s not because they are not up to the challenges of completing college,” Copney added. “It’s because of the first-generation status, the income status, and the disability status. TRiO students are among the university’s best and brightest.”

To get into the TRiO program students must fill out an application verifying their status. They are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, and TRiO takes applications throughout the school year.

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