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Students learn to overcome odds

By Clifton B. Parker on February 17, 2006 in University News

Freshman Kao Lee Vang knows the importance of family. The fifth of eight children, Vang had some reservations about leaving her home in Marysville to become the first in her family to attend college. Yet she soon found herself welcomed into a supportive environment on campus — the new UC Davis TRiO Scholars program.

"I know I have a family to turn to," she says of program staff and fellow students.

The TRiO Scholars Program, established this fall with a $1.1 million federal grant to be paid over five years, aims to improve the retention and graduation rates of low-income, first-generation and disabled undergraduates. "TRiO" refers to the number (originally three, now seven) of federal programs to increase access to higher education for economically disadvantaged students.

The UC Davis version of TRiO is housed in the campus Learning Skills Center, where it provides 160 students with academic, personal and career support.

'Real groundbreakers'

Director Larry Greer says the primary goal of TRiO Scholars is to establish a supportive community for the students. "Many of these students are real ground-breakers in their families," he says. In the new environment of a college campus, the program enables students to "figure out college together, and to establish confidence and a comfort level."

The role of advisers is integral to creating that sense of community. Greer says that he and advisers Donelle Perkins and Eric Sanchez take an active role in ensuring that students will come to them at the first sign of trouble, be it a snag in their financial aid, a physical injury, a roommate quarrel or problems at home. The three advisers and office manager Lori Winship guide students through the school bureaucracy, refer them to helpful resources, and create a safe space for students to work through their troubles.

"We have to be on their radar all the time," Greer says. The impact of their support is not lost on students. Says freshman Amy Voong of Sacramento, "They're like a parent and your best friend."

The program also provides first-year students with the opportunity to attend a summer transitional program on campus before the start of their first quarter, and the option of living in a residence hall with other TRiO Scholars during their freshman year. "I found people like me, kind of lost," Voong says of the collective experience. "We were able to bond, so I miss home a lot less."

Students like freshman Tasheema Taylor of Richmond, Calif., also take advantage of one-on-one tutoring available only to TRiO scholars through the Learning Skills Center.

"I'm in there every day," Taylor says. Thanks to her experience at the center, she not only has a leg up on chemistry, but a new idea of possible career goals. "At first I thought I wanted to go into stem cell research," she says. But after working with personable student tutors, "It makes me want to become a teacher, so I can help someone else understand something."

The TRiO Scholars Program is the newest addition to three other branches of the U.S. Department of Education's TRiO project that are offered by UC Davis: Upward Bound and Educational Talent Search, which provide pre-college preparation for high school students, and the McNair Scholars Program, which assists entry into graduate school. (President Bush's proposed federal budget for 2006-07 includes cuts to the TRiO Scholars program, but it is too early to say how Congress will act.) Students selected to join TRiO Scholars are often former high school participants in the Upward Bound and Educational Talent Search programs.

Greer says of the TRiO Scholars, "These students are incredibly enthusiastic. They have to work through their share of hurdles, and they do it, too. It's inspiring to be working with students who work so hard for themselves."

Former Educational Talent Search participant Ryan Doctor entered UC Davis with 47 units thanks to community college classes. A freshman from Oxnard majoring in biomedical engineering, Doctor hopes that the TRiO Scholars program will help him prepare for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and plan for early graduation. With this support, he grins, "Hopefully, one day I will be Dr. Doctor."

The first in his family to attend college, Doctor also represents the first generation born in the United States. His mother and father, who emigrated from Mexico and the Philippines, respectively, must face the novel challenges of the college transition along with their son. "It's different for them. They have to experience letting go of me," he says.

Vang, the freshman from Marysville, also feels the weight of leaving her family. As the first daughter, Vang takes on many responsibilities around her home, including acting as a translator for her Hmong parents, who do not speak English. "My family is proud of me, but I'm the third to youngest, so they're also scared for me to be away from home," she says.

A psychology major, Vang recognizes the impact that TRiO Scholars may have on her future. "I want to become a school counselor," she says, "especially for people who need the help. I think I will really benefit from this program because it's going to give me the experience I need to meet my goal."

Media contact(s)

Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,