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TRIO Programs: 40 years at ULM helping students to succeed

Published July 16, 2021

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The ULM TRIO Program’s Diamond students include, from left, front, Ambernae Williams and Brook Little; middle, John McKeel, Yo’Lecia Addison, Jyssica Hattaway, Jasmine Thenekhamsyharath; and back, Terrishan Howard, Co-Assistant Director Dr. Mystee Burrell, Jaden Saunders, and Tia Smith.

Siddharth Gaulee/ULM Photo Services


Now in its 40th year at ULM, Educational Talent Search is the oldest TRIO program on campus


By Keli Jacobi, Special to ULM


Jasmine Thenekhamsyharath, 21, does not know the meaning of the word "quit."


In June, the Glenmora native was accepted into the University of Louisiana Monroe’s top-rated Dental Hygiene program. She will start classes in Fall 2021 as a junior.


Jasmine is a first-generation college student whose parents immigrated to the United States from Laos, a tiny country in Southeast Asia.


Jasmine’s father never graduated from high school, and both parents lacked insight into the many steps involved in the college application and enrollment process.


TRIO Programs steps in

With help from TRIO Programs at ULM, grant-funded through the U.S. Department of Education to assist those from disadvantaged backgrounds, TRIO stepped in to help Jasmine navigate the enrollment process and continues to help her and many others in their college journeys.


Launched in 1965, TRIO derived its name from the fact it provided aid through three federal programs — Upward Bound, Educational Talent Search, and Student Support Services — though the total number of programs has grown in subsequent years.


Since 1981, ULM is home to two TRIO Programs. It started with Educational Talent Search to assist middle and high school students on the journey to achieve a higher education. Later, Student Support Services was added to help retain and guide ULM students to graduation.


TRIO Programs provides additional grant-funded support for childcare assistance and mentoring.


TRIO’s federal grant funding exceeds $928,000.


Educational Talent Search: Cultivating a college mindset

Now in its 40th year at ULM, Educational Talent Search is the oldest TRIO program on campus. Over the last four decades, some 55,000 students in 16 high schools throughout Ouachita and surrounding parishes have been helped by this facet of TRIO.


TRIO Executive Director Catherine Estis, Ph.D., is in her 29th year at the university. During her tenure, she's held several positions, much of it as a field specialist working in nearby parish schools until taking over as director in 2008.


Educational Talent Search targets eighth- through 12th-grade students from low-income and first-generation households in which neither parent has obtained a four-year degree, according to Estis.


Students are guided to take core courses in high school and maintaining at least a 2.5 GPA. The goal? To enroll and graduate within six years from a postsecondary school, either at ULM or another university.


It is a formidable challenge.


The region's poverty level hovers around 34 percent, and high school graduation rates typically run lower than the state averages. Estis notes it takes effort to convince students from impoverished backgrounds to imagine a future brimming with possibility.


"If you can get them to envision where they can be, it's significant," she said.


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Jasmine Thenekhamsyharath credits ULM’s TRIO Programs with providing her – and her parents – the guidance and support needed as a first-generation college student. She will enter the Dental Hygiene program in Fall 2021.

Siddharth Gaulee/ULM Photo Services


What is a first-gen student?

Estis and other TRIO Programs directors know a thing or two about being first-generation students. Estis' own father was a dairy laborer, and, as one of eight children, she was the only one of her siblings to graduate college.


Associate Director Debbie Upshaw, also a first-generation college graduate and ULM alumna, is fully aware that just the thought of university life can be intimidating.


"They don't have any idea where to start," she said.


"They have no clue how to afford college, what kinds of aid may be available. They don't know how to apply for admission or how to choose a college major or how that relates to choosing a career," Upshaw added. "They have no idea about any of that."

Often, students in targeted parish schools are without a single guidance counselor. They come from families who simply do not know how to help — whether failing to realize important application deadlines or applying for campus housing and meal plans, Upshaw said.


Educational Talent Search has several interventions to address these gaps, offering career workshops, identifying potential majors with aptitude tests, campus tours, job shadowing, even STEM camps.


Some 831 high school students receive assistance through the program, which has met the grant's objectives, said Upshaw.


"Our numbers are good," she said, noting 45 percent of the students served earned a degree within six years, better than the state average of 37 percent. The national average is 46 percent.


And, while many students have chosen to remain in Northeast Louisiana, others expanded their horizons.


"They go all over," Upshaw said. "One went to Harvard; one went to China … It's so fulfilling to see the realization dawn on them what can be achieved."


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TRIO Programs Assistant Director Dr. Mystee Burrell, left, provides information on TRIO services to student John McKeel.

Siddharth Gaulee/ULM Photo Services


Continuing the journey: TRIO Student Support Services

A little more than half of ULM students met TRIO's Student Support Services' eligibility requirements by the fall of 2019.


In 2015, ULM was awarded a $1.1 million grant to launch Student Support Services.


The federal program, created to increase retention and graduation rates, supports low-income students, first-generation college students, and disabled students at every stage of their college education.


Roughly one-third of U.S. college students are the first in their families to attend college.


"Basically, we're here to make a difference. We want to remove barriers to success."

Catherine Estis, Ph.D.

TRIO Executive Director


Support comes through career and academic counseling, financial literacy seminars, tutoring, life skills workshops, assistance with graduate school applications, and scholarship and financial aid forms.


"Basically, we're here to make a difference," Estis said. "We want to remove barriers to success."


The barriers are quite real for students like Jasmine, who acknowledged, "I didn't know how to do just the basic things."


"Getting a parking sticker, operating Moodle (ULM's online learning platform), learning how to navigate all the systems that ULM provides … I would have stressed a lot more (without support)," she said.


Today, Jasmine serves as a peer mentor, guiding others by sharing what she has learned. She said even without Student Support Services, she might still be enrolled in school because she is so persistent, but things would be much different for her.


Making a difference through additional programs

CCAMPIS (Child Care Access Means Parents in Schools) and an outreach mentoring program are also housed with the TRIO Programs, aiding even more students.


CCAMPIS helps with childcare costs for ULM students enrolled and in good academic standing. In addition to meeting financial eligibility, the student must complete at least one financial literacy workshop, one parenting workshop, and attend one parenting event each semester, said Tammy Anderson, TRIO Child Care Coordinator/Outreach Specialist.


"It's made a big difference," she said. "A lot of students have said they could not have stayed in school without the help. The majority are excited and enjoy the workshops — they often go above and beyond the required number."


ULM was the first Louisiana university to receive grant funding for the program, which Anderson has helped lead since spring 2019.


As TRIO Programs Outreach Coordinator, Joe Riser enjoys opportunities to connect with students from the same Northeast Louisiana community where he grew up.

"We've had students who, because of the exposure to things they might not have otherwise seen, you see them blossom. When they talk about the program, you see how much they have grown."

Joe Riser

TRIO Programs Outreach Coordinator

Coming out of Richwood High School and attending the University of California at Berkeley, he appreciates growth that happens when stretched outside one's comfort zone.


"I learned so much just by being around people of different backgrounds and cultures," he said. "It was a good experience for me."


Today, he enjoys watching achievers through TRIO, especially those receiving guidance through a high school mentoring program started in 2014.


The mentoring program includes hosting business and community leaders who share with students how they could achieve their goals. Other benefits include social and business etiquette, study skills, and decision-making, as well as excursions to stoke intellectual curiosity.


"We've had students who, because of the exposure to things they might not have otherwise seen, you see them blossom," he said. "When they talk about the program, you see how much they have grown."