Originally published on ESME.
Reentering college as a nontraditional student takes a lot of courage, especially as an older woman with kids. I received my bachelor’s degree at 35 and walked across the stage, eight months pregnant, to accept my diploma. My six-year-old daughter sat in the audience watching me. It was not, by any means, an easy journey.
TRIO comprises eight federal student-services programs aimed at helping those who’ve come from disadvantaged backgrounds make that jump a little less scary and offer a safe landing if you stumble. TRIO also has a training program for directors and staff of TRIO programs.
TRIO has 959 offices nationwide that work to end the cycle of poverty by helping people, especially Solo Moms, succeed in college. TRIO guides students with whatever they need, from helping them apply for loans and scholarships to finding tutors. TRIO targets low-income families, first-generation college students, and individuals with disabilities, and its programs range from helping students from middle school all the way up to doctorate levels.
Joseph Hickman worked as a student support services program director through TRIO for 20 years in Alaska and Montana, and when I asked him about a student who stood out in his memory, he immediately thought of Denise. She is the exemplar of how TRIO helps families out of poverty through education.
“She had a handful of credits from going to college before she had kids and came to us wanting to get her business degree,” he told me over the phone. At the time, Denise had two boys in their teens and worked long nights as a bartender. After raising her boys to the point where they were more independent, she decided to go back to school. “She needed a lot of support with tutoring and getting back into subjects like math and help with technology.”
Hickman said Denise graduated with her BA the same year her oldest son graduated from high school.
“The kids used our tutoring center, too,” he said. “She went on to get her MBA the same year her younger son graduated high school.”
Denise was such a staple in the office that she became a sort of “den mother” to the other students, he said.
“Whenever the other students complained about not having time for homework, Denise would tell them something like, ‘You think you don’t have time? I work nights and have two kids!’ and she really helped create a family atmosphere.”
That’s the main goal of the TRIO programs: to give first-generation and unsupported college students confidence in finding the assistance they need through a secure and supportive atmosphere they can trust and depend on.
“It’s really to replicate a college-going family,” Hickman said, comparing the staff to parents and siblings who can help find information and funds. A college campus with a TRIO office on-site will have a study area with some toys available to keep small children busy. TRIO also has a knowledgeable staff who can offer help with free tutoring, book loans, career advisement, and obtaining financial assistance.
Many TRIO applicants are considered nontraditional students, either as first-generation college students or Solo Moms going back to school to get their degrees. Most often, a Solo Mom who qualifies will also have children in middle or high school who can participate in Upward Bound, a part of the TRIO program that assists low-income families with college preparation.
“One mother worked with us to get her college degree, and her two older sons worked their way up the Upward Bound and TRIO programs, too,” Hickman recalled. “By the time her youngest daughter was in college, she didn’t qualify for the program.”
He had to tell her what a good thing that was. She was a college graduate earning more than $50,000 a year with two sons in college, so she’d created her own college family.
“That’s breaking the cycle of poverty through education right there,” Hickman said.
The programs offered on various college campuses vary, but information about all of them can be found at the TRIO homepage. From its website, the Student Support Services Program lists dozens of ways it assists students but, according to its website, will always offer “academic tutoring, which may include instruction in reading, writing, study skills, mathematics, science, and other subjects; advice and assistance in postsecondary course selection, assist student with information on both the full range of student financial aid programs, benefits and resources for locating public and private scholarships; and assistance in completing financial aid applications.”
The TRIO programs make it possible to go back to school and are there if you stumble. They focus on diverse, underprivileged populations, and their main goal is success. They are a patient ear and, most of all, a resource to get students on their way to graduation and succeeding in the workforce.
Even if you think you might qualify but feel like you have a good handle on things, stop by a TRIO office to see what it might have to offer anyway. For example, TRIO has a book loan system in which it purchases books with a grant, stocks up a library, and can loan books out to you for the semester. It could help you get your foot in the door for employment opportunities, or it could direct you to someone who could help you write a fantastic résumé or someone you can see about getting clothes for an interview. TRIO is definitely worth checking out.