Op-Ed

Support making difference for Tacoma-grown students

Students from Mount Tahoma High School visit Pacific Lutheran University in June 2014 as part of an event in which the College Success Foundation brought promising low-income students from 17 area high schools to PLU to have them experience what it's like to be in college.
Students from Mount Tahoma High School visit Pacific Lutheran University in June 2014 as part of an event in which the College Success Foundation brought promising low-income students from 17 area high schools to PLU to have them experience what it's like to be in college. Staff file, 2014

It takes more than scholarships to graduate from college. Kavitha Cardoza’s article for The Washington Post (above) accurately describes some of the challenges that cause first-generation students to struggle in completing college.

Tacoma students are fortunate to have partners across our community who work together to support them in overcoming these challenges.

Many first-generation students do not aspire to college. Graduation from high school is their primary goal. However, in today’s economy a post-secondary degree can dramatically drive opportunities to expand career and life success. Introducing options and opportunity early, and giving low-income students the tools and supports to be successful, are critical first steps in them understand what is possible.

The earlier students realize how their education affects their future, the more they can prepare and plan ahead. Not only must they understand college is an option, they must have support to achieve their goals. Creating a college-going culture in our schools is a common priority for Tacoma Public Schools, local advisory groups such as the Tacoma College Support Network and college access organizations such as mine – the College Success Foundation.

Founded in Washington state and serving students in Tacoma since 2000, CSF provides a unique, integrated system of supports and scholarships to inspire underserved, low-income students to finish high school, graduate from college and succeed in life.

School counselors and CSF college prep advisers are on the ground in our schools, guiding underserved students on a clear pathway to college and career. Early on, they monitor attendance, school behavior and grades, plus advocate for registration in classes that meet high school graduation and college admission requirements to be sure students are academically prepared.

But as Cardoza explains, first-generation collegegoers need more than academic guidance; they need social, emotional and cultural support, as well.

CSF advisers connect underserved students with mentors who can help guide them. In high school, mentors may guide students in writing college admission essays and scholarship applications, meet key application deadlines and make final college selection decisions. As students enter college, new challenges await them and mentors can lend a listening ear, offer encouragement and be a friend to lean on.

One of the best resources are peer mentors. CSF has them on college campuses to help students navigate the new environment. Peer mentors are usually upper-division students who are often first-generation students themselves and can understand the challenges and offer solutions and resources in time to address them before it is too late.

Without a doubt, college financial aid for low-income students is critical. But our experience at CSF shows that scholarships alone are not enough for underserved students. Scholarships that connect their award recipients with support services that address academic, financial, social and emotional needs have the strongest impact.

There is also a role for colleges to welcome students and assimilate diverse student populations on campus, providing resources and networks where students can thrive. Tacoma Community College is piloting a new program this year for first-year students in which a staff member meets with students and tracks their progress, familiarizing them with time management and academic planning tools along with ways to become acquainted with key faculty and staff.

Tacoma values and supports all students in completing a postsecondary degree or credential. Supports, combined with scholarships, are changing the lives of our most vulnerable youth. The strength and vitality of our community requires a well-educated citizenry. Inclusion of first-generation students is a win for everyone.

Steve Smith is executive director of College Success Foundation – Tacoma.

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