TRIO programs set high schoolers and Sun Devils up for success

Friday, September 13, 2019

As the fall semester clicks along, some Arizona State University students are reflecting on everything it took to get to college and what it will take to make it to graduation day.

Chacoby Catarino Willis is a first-year student at ASU’s Polytechnic campus studying applied biological sciences. After experiencing some setbacks in high school, the first-generation student said they are thrilled to start at ASU studying something they enjoy (Willis uses the pronoun “they”).

“I have changed tremendously with the help of my friends, teachers, family and Upward Bound,” Willis said.

Willis, who attended Maryvale High School in the Phoenix Union High School District, is an alum of Upward Bound Tempe, part of the federally funded TRIO programs that help motivate and support first-generation students, low-income students, students with disabilities and veterans to prepare for and achieve earning a college degree.

Going to college wasn’t always a given for Willis, who thought about joining the military to escape difficulty at home and struggled with mental health. They worried about affording college and living on campus. Now they have moved into a residence hall and are looking forward to the independence and new experiences that come along with it. Willis said Upward Bound helped to carve a path to college and prepare for what’s ahead. 

“The summer program that they offer that I did for three summers helped me get a grasp on how to time manage and manage my money and also grasp how hard college will be,” Willis said. “I will say now that I’m prepared to deal and go to college now because of those summer programs.” 

Upward Bound Tempe, which works with 147 high school students and is one of the oldest continually funded Upward Bound programs in the country (it’s been at ASU’s Tempe campus since 1966), is just one of the 10 TRIO and GEAR UP programs at ASU; five serve pre-college students and five serve current ASU students. 

Talent Search, GEAR UP, Upward Bound Tempe and Upward Bound West serve high school students, while Student Support Services serves current ASU students and Veterans Upward Bound serves veterans, who are pre-college and current students. The programs are funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Participants receive academic support and preparation, financial literacy education, assistance with the FAFSA, tutoring, professional development, education on financial aid and scholarships and much more. 

The impact that the programs are having is a ripple effect in access to higher education in Arizona at a time when the first-generation student population is growing and when incoming classes are becoming more diverse each year. According to a recent report on TRIO and GEAR UP’s impact, in the 2018–19 academic year alone, the pre-college programs at ASU reached 2,092 students. College programs reached more than 820 Sun Devils with mentoring and skill building. And 140 veterans were served in Maricopa and northern Pinal counties. 

Of the pre-college students served, 100% of Talent Search and Upward Bound West students and 99% of Upward Bound Tempe students went on to earn their high school diplomas. The rates of persistence and good academic standing were above 90% for each Student Support Services program.

Sylvia Symonds, associate vice president of outreach for ASU’s Educational Outreach and Student Services, said the impact of these programs on access to higher education is significant.

“By supporting high school and college students, as well as veterans, TRIO and GEAR UP programs are helping Arizona move closer toward our Achieve60AZ goal of increasing postsecondary attainment. Our statewide goal is that by 2030, 60% of Arizona adults will hold a postsecondary credential or degree. These programs and others like them will help ensure our state has a thriving workforce and economy.” 

Sun Devils such as Travis Luck, a U.S. Navy veteran now studying technological entrepreneurship and management, know firsthand how much TRIO affects whether students have the tools and support they need to overcome barriers and get to graduation.

Luck, who is originally from New Knoxville, Ohio, said Veterans Upward Bound not only solidified his math skills ahead of attending ASU but provided a sense of community.  

“The program has given me confidence by showing that there are many resources that I can use and people that I can count on if I ever find myself struggling in a particular class. It has also introduced me to many like-minded individuals who are in the same sort of position as myself. It brings me solace to know that I’m not the only one who is catching up.”

For Jennifer Dueñas, who is majoring in pharmacology and toxicology, the TRIO Student Support Services STEM program at ASU’s West campus meant help with books, supplies and what she considers a campus family. The STEM program offers support specifically to students who are pursuing science, technology, engineering and math.

“TRIO STEM has been a tremendous help in not only providing me resources that I need and would have difficulties acquiring on my own such as books and supplies, but this program has also given me a family on campus formed of … students coming from backgrounds just as diverse and unique as mine. I receive mentorship from my own peers as well as the staff in the program who do all they can to support all their students; their work is truly remarkable,” she said.

The program has also helped Dueñas get a head start on her professional career because of connections with leaders in her industry and guidance on postgraduate work and other opportunities.

“Without my involvement in this program, I dare to say I would be nowhere near as invested in my future as I am now because through this program I gained clarity over what it is that I want to do and how exactly I plan to achieve that,” she said.

Sharon Smith, dean of students at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus, said that she takes great pride in the effects these programs have on students’ lives.

“The TRIO and GEAR UP programs’ impact on Arizona students is tremendous,” said Smith.

“By providing necessary academic, personal development and career preparation tools to enroll and complete postsecondary education, these programs not only change the trajectory of a student’s life but also the family’s legacy.” 

 Sun Devil Storyteller Austin Davis contributed to this article.