UMW News Bureau
The diverse aspirations and abilities of the students served by the University of Montana Western TRiO Student Support Services program represent the varied educational opportunities and challenges students face in pursuing a four-year degree.
TRiO is part of a federal program aiming to increase the college retention and graduation rates of students. TRiO’s name initially came into use for its first three programs originally authorized under the Higher Education Act in 1965, however the program now consists of seven distinct federally funded student programs. The Student Support Services (SSS) program provides support to first-generation college and low-income students as well as to students with physical and learning challenges, although Montana Western’s diverse group of 160 TRiO students cannot be classified so simply.
Christy Keyes is the current director of TRiO at Montana Western. She is also a UMW and TRiO alumna.
“The TRiO program literally found me at Montana Western’s spring orientation,” Keyes said. “I was a non-traditional, first-generation, low-income student. The director at that time…passed out applications. Once I learned I qualified and was enrolled in TRiO, the program folded me into their services.”
Graduating from Montana Western in 2005 with highest honors, a 3.9 GPA and a Bachelor of Arts in Literature and Writing, Keyes also recently completed an M.F.A. program in creative writing. Her continued work with TRiO SSS and its students was as a work study tutor and, after graduation, as the tutor coordinator.
Keyes’ involvement as a work study tutor help lead to her role as director of the newly established Montana Western Learning Center in 2005. The Learning Center is a free resource for all students, giving them assistance across academic disciplines at Montana Western. It was established with the help of additional funding under the direction of Montana Western Student Success Department Director Ilene Cohen and with full administrative campus support.
Keyes was the director of the Learning Center while also working as a retention specialist in the TRiO office before becoming the full-time director of TRiO’s SSS. Keyes said she gained perspective of TRiO from her experiences ranging from student to mentor.
“The cross-section of TRiO students mirrors the general student population across UMW’s campus,” Keyes explained. “The range is from those struggling academically to those with 4.0s. TRiO does not specifically look for a particular type of student when considering applicants, but for students who qualify under more than one criterion.”
Once students are accepted into TRiO the First Year Program transitions them into college life.
The First Year Program, which is designed as a more intensive approach to helping freshman on their educational path, was piloted at Montana Western during the spring 2011 semester with 10 students. Erin Smith, TRiO’s transition and proficiency coordinator, leads the program.
“We are working to empower and to encourage students to become individual learners who are able to articulate and pursue their personal and educational goals,” Smith said. “The pilot program showed me that the first year is a period of critical development where pieces come together.”
Intended as a transitional program from high school to college, the First Year Program offers individualized attention to its freshman focusing on learning styles. From assistance in filling out forms to finding housing and offering a perceptive ear, the First Year Program helps students navigate college life right off the bat.
TRiO and its first year students also meet as a group twice a block and include presentations by campus and community professionals to help students with academic and life skills.
Montana Western Professor of Psychology and Education Mark Krank recently joined TRiO students in the First Year Program at their October meeting to talk about test anxiety.
Krank offered an array of ideas and information to the students on how to help with test anxiety as well as to improve their overall college experience. His presentation focused on the importance of time management, breathing practices, consistent study habits and sufficient sleep.
Krank’s presentation is an example of the First Year Program’s work in fostering relationships and helping students discover opportunities on campus and within the community.
Jordan Bronec, a Montana Western resident assistant and now a student mentor for TRiO’s First Year Program, was a participant in the pilot program. She brings her experiences in the pilot program to her current sophomore year and mentor role.
“Through study seminars, TRiO helped me with test anxiety,” Bronec said. “They offer support here on campus and motivate you to succeed.”
Bronec meets with her mentees at least two times per block.
“I love helping people and let my TRiO mentees know that I am there for them, that they can come to me for help or with questions.”
Nathan Boll, a senior at Montana Western, echoes Bronec’s sentiments about how TRiO has benefitted his college experience. Boll is a math tutor in the Learning Center, a lab tech in Montana Western’s Macintosh computer lab and is the music director at KDWG Campus Radio. He is involved in several campus clubs and is also a member of the American Geophysics Union.
“TRiO has been a valuable resource for me, primarily in the academic sense,” Boll explained. “When I first arrived at Montana Western, Jeanna Meier-Francisconi was able to access my student account and allow me to register for the right classes. Later she guided me through the process of applying for a speech credit waiver and even helped to proofread my work. I expect to work with her closely as I prepare for graduation.”
Meier-Francisconi has been a retention specialist at TRiO since 2001.
Also helpful to Boll are TRiO’s constant reminders of financial aid due dates and access to a variety of grant, loan and scholarship information. With their assistance, Boll was awarded two scholarships for the 2011-2012 academic year.
“Perhaps most importantly of all, TRiO provides personal support through whatever challenges you encounter and someone to celebrate with you when you succeed,” Boll concluded.
Brett Morehouse, a retention specialist with TRiO, is also the assistant coach for the Montana Western women’s basketball team. He said his experience with student athletes has been inspiring.
“Personally, I have found the athletes who are also TRiO students to be a valuable commodity when it comes to breaking stereotypes,” Morehouse said. “All of our athletes can find it difficult to balance academics and athletics. TRiO is just another great resource for our student athletes to use to help them be more successful.”
Alecia Wilson, a junior at Montana Western, is on the women’s basketball team and also works on campus.
“TRiO, for me, has helped financially,” Wilson said. “Neither of my parents have a degree so, as a freshman especially, TRiO helped me to succeed as a student. I used the Learning Center more at first, however I still sometimes go. TRiO is always open to questions, even quick ones. I’ve found jobs on campus and was able to stay here this past summer. With school, basketball and a job it’s nice having someone on campus there for help when needed.”
Zach Hawkins, president of the Montana Association of TRiO Professionals, recently wrote an article published in the Helena Independent Record about upcoming national funding cut decisions that may adversely affect the seven programs offered to students by TRiO.
The article, “College help for low-income students good investment,” notes the July 31, 2011 meeting of the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives and President Obama regarding a compromise debt ceiling package that will likely include “large cuts to discretionary programs that matter most in our low-income neighborhoods,” Hawkins explained. Montana Sen. Max Baucus has been chosen for the Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, now known as the Supercommittee. The Supercommittee will recommend $1.5 trillion in cuts by the end of 2011.
Hawkins’ article describes TRiO’s great benefits, not only to students, but to the nation.
“Low income students who are enrolled in a TRiO program in Montana are over three times more likely to earn a post-secondary degree or certificate than the national average among their cohorts,” Hawkins wrote. “Obviously, graduating more students can only make Montana more prosperous and economically viable in the future.”