TRIO Supports Nontraditional Students

- by Genelle Gatsos, student support services specialist, and Joette M. Siertle, student support services program coordinator. Photos by Jennifer A. Cline.

The morning of Aug. 9, 2008, was beautiful and crisp, more indicative of fall than summer commencement. Of the 225 graduates, nine in particular had a secret to their success. Those nine were participants in Pennsylvania College of Technology’s Student Support Services program.

Yvonne D. Johnson, a pre-radiography student, works with Dorothy

Penn College graduates come from all walks of life. Many exhibit the typical characteristics of a college student: someone fresh out of high school, perhaps their parents attended college, and for them, going to college is a given.

However, a larger percentage of students come from nontraditional backgrounds. They didn’t perform well in school and are only just realizing the importance of a college degree. They may be the first in their family to attend college and are unaware how to navigate through various offices, paperwork and emotions that can be overwhelming.

Or, they are older students with families of their own and years of work experience, eager to advance in their careers but in need of a degree to do that. Jumping into a sea of 18-year-olds can be a little intimidating.

That’s where Student Support Services steps in. The program is funded through a federal TRIO grant. As stated on the U.S. Department of Education’s website: “The Federal TRIO Programs are educational opportunity outreach programs designed to motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds. TRIO includes six outreach and support programs targeted to serve and assist low-income, first-generation college students and students with disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline from middle school to post-baccalaureate programs.”

The specific goal of Student Support Services “is to increase the college retention and graduation rates of its participants and help students make the transition from one level of higher education to the next.” In 2000, Penn College submitted a grant proposal to administer a Student Support Services program. Eligible students receive customized tutoring and guidance through workshops and one-on-one advising with professional and peer staff members.

A recent study by the Department of Education showed that participants in Student Support Services programs have a higher grade-point average and earn a greater number of credits per semester than nonparticipants. Penn College’s SSS program is funded 100 percent by the Department of Education at an annual amount of $243,095.

Over the years at Penn College, Student Support Services has served 160 students annually. One participant, Sue A. Gigunito, recently earned admission to the nursing program for a bachelor’s degree. While attending the college in a pre-program status, she recognized that she may need some help adjusting to the classroom.

“I came to Penn College to pursue a college education after not being in school for 23 years,” Gigunito said.

From left, Sue A. Gigunito, a nursing major who participates in the TRIO Student Support Services program, meets with Genelle Gatsos, student support services specialist, and Joette M. Siertle, student support services program coordinator.

She acknowledged that it was a huge adjustment to join a classroom after so much time, and she felt that she needed help in almost every class.

“I needed to know there were people that were available to see me through the most difficult times with my education,” she explained.

Gigunito valued not only the one-on-one tutoring she received, but also the encouragement and help pursuing scholarships. After successfully navigating several challenging courses, she has secured a job in a hospital and loves every minute of it. She earned a scholarship from AARP that she would never have considered applying for until an SSS staff member presented it to her. (It’s offered to women over age 40.) She is thrilled to begin clinicals in Spring ’09 to really delve into her program.

One feature of SSS is the annual grant aid awarded to eligible participants. Active participants submit an application for the grant. Michelle B. Rabenstein, a 2007-08 recipient, stated in her application: “Without the support from TRIO Student Support Services, I do not think I could have gotten to where I am today. … I recall my goals starting out small and now my goals have expanded. … Talking with the staff of TRIO helps me to vent when the stress is overwhelming … and just knowing that I have support to turn to helps me get through the day.”

During the 2008 summer commencement, Rabenstein graduated with her associate of applied science degree in occupational therapy assistant. Not only did she reach her goal of a degree, she also received the Board of Directors' Award, presented for achievement under exceptional conditions, and the Occupational Therapy Assistant Faculty Award, presented to a graduate of the occupational therapy assistant major who demonstrates dedicated service to the program.

SSS was proud to have more than one participant honored during the 2008 commencement. Stephen L. Lachat, of Lamar, received the award for Surgical Clinical Performance, presented to a graduate of surgical technology who has demonstrated outstanding clinical performance and professionalism in surgical technology.

Lachat is the father of two young girls and has been a volunteer emergency medical technician for many years. Going into the medical field was a natural extension; however, with a family to support, it was often challenging. During his academic career, he juggled the roles of student, father and breadwinner with humor and determination. Not easily discouraged, he seemed to gear up when facing setbacks. He availed himself of coaching and one-on-one tutoring, utilizing all the resources offered to reach his goal.

More often than not, SSS participants face obstacles not typical of many students. Whether being out of school for many years or challenged by a disability, they have the desire and ability to be successful in college.

Often, they are simply in need of some guidance and individualized attention that hasn’t been forthcoming in the way it has for the traditional student.

Located in the Academic Support Services wing of the Klump Academic Center, Student Support Services aims to provide resources that offer a shoulder to cry on, calm reassurance and connection to the multitude of services that Penn College offers all of its students.

Of course, the best part of SSS is cheering students on as they cross the platform to receive their degrees. ■