Program at Wisconsin university helps first-gen students
OSHKOSH, Wis. (AP) — When Rajon Hall graduates from college, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh senior will make a little piece of family history.
As a first-generation college student, Hall will be one of the first in his family to earn a college degree. When he talks about the challenges he’s faced in getting his degree, this is the one he points to: the challenges of treading an unpaved path.
“My mom never went to college. My dad didn’t even graduate from high school,” Hall said. “My sister did go to college, but she left the house at an early age.”
Hall had ambition and the skills to play collegiate sports, but he worried that wouldn’t be enough to rise above his circumstances, he said.
And there was the doubt he had developing inside him.
“Coming from (Green Bay) West High School, I didn’t really have the best grades, so you always have that feeling in the back of your mind, like, can you do college? Can you pass college in four years?”
When UWO admitted Hall to play football and earn his criminal justice degree in 2014, he also ended up in a then-new program aimed at giving incoming freshman with his background a jump start.
The Titan Advantage Program, launched that year was one of three recipients of the UW System’s 2019 Regents’ Diversity Award Feb. 4, the Oshkosh Northwestern reported.
The UW System also recognized Dennis Beale Jr., assistant director of the Blugolds Beginnings program at UW-Eau Claire and the UW-Milwaukee Food Center and Pantry for their efforts to support students on their campuses.
But the mission of the 5-year-old program goes beyond such accolades: The Titan Advantage Program aims to be a model in the UW System and in a state that historically struggles to close its achievement gaps.
The goal is to get underrepresented students familiar with the college environment the summer before the rest of the student body arrives.
The program recruits students of color, those from low-income households and/or first-generation students. The U.S. Department of Education defines first-generation student as someone whose parents or guardians have not attended college.
“I think the takeaway is that an investment in support services is an investment in student success,” said Sylvia Carey-Butler, UWO’s associate vice chancellor for academic support and inclusive excellence. “We are seeing the outcomes that we expected, and we’re not surprised.”
“The TAP program is a game-changer for UW-Oshkosh, not only for enrollment but (also) in terms of retention and persistence in graduation,” Carey-Butler said.
But a TAP student’s success goes beyond grades, Carey-Butler said. The classes students take not only catch them up to their peers academically, but they also teach them how to efficiently read a textbook, take a multiple-choice test and keep up with multiple, fast-paced courses.
“I think that sometimes, if we look at the non-academic things that might suggest that a student might be successful, that we might find that there are more students that can be,” she said. “And what we’re discovering is that the students — they’re taking off. They develop confidence, a sense of self-efficacy and, if I was to forecast down the road, I think that we will ultimately move closer to lessening the achievement gap here at UW-Oshkosh.”
Students spend six weeks of the summer before their freshman year taking classes in math, reading, writing and study skills, to earn up to six credits that count toward graduation. They build relationships with their teachers, support staff and student mentors. They meet the financial aid coordinators to learn about financing their education.
Over five years, all 137 students earned a C or higher in every course to complete the program.
The first cohort had 14 students, and the program grew to serve 50 this year. Carey-Butler said the goal is to eventually serve up to 100 students per year, which is comparable to similar programs at other universities that aim to ease the transition into college.
The program is free to the students and includes room and board, tuition and books, said Mai Khou Xiong, TAP coordinator and UWO’s assistant director of multicultural retention programs. The cost to UWO is $5,000 per student.
“I think that really is a driving force in the program,” Xiong said. “We haven’t had any issues in growing the program or filling the program.”
UWO continues to make gains in recruiting and retaining students traditionally underrepresented on college campuses.
Forty-three percent of UWO students are the first in their families to attend college in 2018. Since 2013, the percentage of students of color at UWO rose 4.6 percent, to 15 percent of the university’s total enrollment in fall 2018. Narrow the field to undergraduates only, and that percentage climbs to almost 15.8 percent, according to university data.
This school year, TAP students represent 16 percent undergraduate students of color at UWO, Xiong said.
The program recruits students from across the state: 37 percent of students came from Milwaukee County, 11 percent from Outagamie County and 7 percent from Winnebago County.
Forty-five percent of the program’s students are African American. Twenty-six percent are southeast Asian/Hmong. Twenty-one percent are Hispanic/Latino.
Though the effect the program has on the UWO’s overall student population trends remains anecdotal, Xiong and Carey-Butler have heard of TAP students recruiting others to Oshkosh citing their experience in the Titan Advantage Program.
In this sense, the Titan Advantage Program’s greatest impact could be in its role as a place where students who are from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds can support and learn from one another.
Nou Lee, a freshman accounting major from Wisconsin Rapids, said one of the greatest benefits from her summer in the Titan Advantage Program was the chance to learn from people who are different from her.
Lee is Hmong and said the program even taught her about her own culture by introducing her to other Hmong students who were more or less traditional in their cultural identity. She said the experience didn’t just teach her tolerance, it taught acceptance.
“Being back home, you’re always stuck with your own identity and enclosed with your own family and the people you surround yourself with,” Lee said. “But in TAP, you’re really put out there. You’re surrounded with people who you don’t really identify with. They’re different from you. And that, to me, is something that’s really special.”
She said the chance to take some classes in a tight-knit, structured environment also gave her a solid foundation for freshman year: She finished the summer with a 4.0 grade point average.
Year to year, the program’s cohorts show the potential to excel academically with the right guidance and support. The program’s five-year report shows students averaged above a 3.0 grade point average each summer since 2014. The 2018 cohort had a 3.5 GPA to launch them into their college careers.
The program also benefits from buy-in from the whole campus, Carey-Butler said.
TAP students meet with university police to help build relationships early. They get to know the career and counseling center staffs. The program coordinators even hold a workshop the students’ parents.
Once the school year starts, TAP students have the chance to get new mentors for freshman year. They meet with program coordinators twice a semester to discuss their grades.
Almost all TAP students choose stay with the program into the fall. Some, like Hall, even return to the program as upperclassmen, when they apply to mentor incoming students themselves.
The program is now reaching the point where students and program leaders will see the fruits of their labor — college graduates. This spring, Hall will be one of the first to join the list of UWO alumni who were in the program.
The program helped him gain maturity, he said, and the ability to prioritize, persist and get things done.
“I think it’s giving people a chance, honestly. It’s really nice to see people that don’t believe in themselves right away, and then you can see this change over the years from like, ‘Wow, I don’t think I can do this,’ to ‘Wow, this actually pretty easy, and it’s going to be done,’” Hall said. “They want to give the people who probably wouldn’t have gone to school a chance to go to school and get a degree.”
A dose of confidence from the Titan Advantage Program and years of hard work paid off. Hall’s corporate internship with Ross Stores in Chicago led to a full-time job offer with the company come graduation. He’s humble about his success, but the TAP coordinators who’ve cheered him on since before day one can barely curb their enthusiasm.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Carey-Butler beamed.
Information from: Oshkosh Northwestern Media, http://www.thenorthwestern.com