SHERIDAN — College thrusts a variety of responsibilities on students. They must sign up for classes, get textbooks, seek extra help outside of class and determine the most effective way to earn a degree.
For students who carry additional challenges heading into Sheridan College, the College Success Program aims to lessen the burden. The CSP began in September 2017 as a way to assist underrepresented students and is funded by a grant through Whitney Benefits.
College Success Program director Joseph Aguirre said the idea for the CSP began last summer. Aguirre noticed the growing waiting list for TRIO — a federally funded program that serves students from lower-income backgrounds — and the increasing number of students who didn’t qualify for TRIO but needed additional support. Students in CSP come from an array of backgrounds and range in age from about 18 to 60. Most are either first-generation, international students, lower income (but not low enough to qualify for TRIO) or have a disability of some kind.
The CSP grant from Whitney pays for two full-time student retention coordinators, Rafael Escoto and Ron Winters.
Winters had some familiarity with the program, serving as a part-time TRIO math tutor the previous three years. Escoto worked for one year at Highland Park Elementary School as an English as a Second Language paraprofessional before taking the job at the college. Escoto came from a low-income background in El Salvador and was a first-generation college student. English is not his native language, so he had to adjust to academic lingo. However, Escoto can also more easily connect with Spanish-speaking students.
“It’s really good to feel that they come not only for the services that we offer, but also to hang out with somebody that speaks their own language,” Escoto said.
Escoto and Winters meet individually with students for 30 minutes to an hour at least three times per semester: once in the first three weeks, which is crucial for identifying potential issues; once around midterms; and once in the final three weeks of the semester.
For students who need more assistance, they try to meet once per week. Ideally, they meet with students every two to three weeks.
“It’s trying to beat any issue from coming, so doing proactive work as much as you can,” Aguirre said.
That proactive work includes helping students apply early for financial aid, scholarships, transfers and registering for classes, in addition to more personal concerns, like helping a student figure out how to pay for his or her family’s electric bill.
Aguirre said TRIO has an annual retention rate 10 to 16 percent higher than other Sheridan College students and that 89 percent of TRIO students are in academic good standing. The CSP aims for similar numbers and mirrors most of TRIO’s organizational steps.
The retention coordinators work with each student and form a success plan at the beginning of every semester. Winters has 55 students, while Escoto helps 27.
Part-time retention coordinator Anastasia Corlay works with 48 students, and Geraldine Manan at Gillette College works with 40 TRIO students, for a total of 170 in the Northern Wyoming Community College District. Winters said the district should have around 200 students by the end of the spring semester.
Both Escoto and Winters said the first four months have gone about how they expected, with challenges and rewards alike. Challenges include managing schedules and working with students who have other circumstances that may affect their ability as a student. The coordinators are usually able to discuss different course options with students and keep them in school, but not always.
“For the most part, students who become discouraged and want to get out of college, we’re able to work with them and keep them in school,” Winters said. “By the same token, there are things that happen … and sometimes a student does have to leave.”
Reasons vary for why students leave, but the most common ones involve personal concerns, like financial trouble for a student’s family. Aguirre said those conversations can be gut-wrenching, as students weigh potential long-term success by staying in school against immediate personal concerns.
The CSP grant allows Aguirre and his colleagues to offer presentations and workshops to the full student body, not only TRIO students. They host workshops on resume building, cover letter writing, personal finance and physical and mental health.
They also take TRIO/CSP students on tours to four-year colleges once per semester. This spring, students will visit the University of Wyoming and Colorado State University. Furthermore, nine students are going on a 10-day service learning trip to Nicaragua over spring break.
Freshman Kristen Dole is studying human services with plans to eventually receive her master’s degree and be a social worker. Sophomore Bailey Hassler recently transferred from Baylor University to study dental hygiene.
They both meet with their retention coordinator two to three times per month. Dole said TRIO is extremely helpful and assisted her with her financial aid application process.
“When it came to career picking and goals, it helped me navigate what I actually wanted,” Hassler said.
CSP and TRIO aim to relinquish some burden from underrepresented students, and with the help of coordinators like Escoto and Winters, the track to success becomes a bit smoother.