TRIO & Pre-College programs boost students over obstacles

“Open very carefully,” reads a small, oval sign on April Holland’s office door. “There are students on the other side.”

That’s an understatement. Every year, more than 3,700 Milwaukee middle- and high-school students will make their way into Holland’s office at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

They come for the TRIO & Pre-College programs, a suite of college-preparatory programs that help students facing obstacles to a college education. The staff of 27 full-time UWM employees and 24 UWM students helps TRIO/Pre-College participants navigate among the difficulties of poverty, disability and test-taking anxiety, while improving their math and writing skills through a series of courses, workshops, tutoring groups and cultural experiences. The overall goal: To nurture the academic skills of middle and high school students. Two TRIO programs, Student Support Services and McNair Scholars, work with currently enrolled UWM undergraduates.

“It’s not all about college prep,” Holland said. “We pour life skills into them.”

All TRIO & Pre-College programs are free to qualified students, or offered at a minimal fee. Financial support comes from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the federal government and donors.

The TRIO & Pre-College story dates to 1964, when policymakers established programs to recruit and support low-income students of color at American universities as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Today, UWM is one of only three universities in the United States that offer all seven TRIO & Pre-College programs. The programs include Veterans Upward Bound, which works with veterans of any age who need academic support in college. Upward Bound Math/Science recruits UWM students to mentor eighth- to 12th-graders in subjects that can be stumbling blocks on the road to college. The McNair Scholars program mentors college juniors and seniors with remarkable potential, preparing them for graduate school.

As a junior at Hamilton High School in 2008, Ka Shena Harris participated in financial-aid workshops offered through the TRIO & Pre-College Talent Search program, established at UWM in 1965.

“I was petrified of loans,” she remembered. “I didn’t want to take any out, and I felt like I couldn’t fund college in any way.

“My TRIO & Pre-College adviser helped me understand the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) process. She told me about work-study and helped me find grants and scholarships. College readiness and financial-aid workshops pretty much helped me get into and through college. There was no one else to teach me about these things.”

Last May, Harris became the first college graduate on either side of her large family, earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UWM. Now she shares the knowledge as a mentoring coordinator for Talent Search.

But her breakthrough moment came at Wayne State University on one of the college tours that Holland organizes yearly.

“We were having an action-packed day – campus tours, workshops, lunch — and then we visited the Wright Museum of African American History,” Harris said. “It’s not every day that a student like me got the chance to be outside Milwaukee, go to this kind of museum and see all this history. That is what this program does.”

The college tours provide moments of reflection for students who are referred to TRIO & Pre-College by principals, counselors and parents. So do the art galleries, ethnic restaurants and historical landmarks students visit between campuses.

“This program is also about developing soft skills: writing a senior essay, getting out of one’s comfort zone, experiencing different cultures through art and food,” said Holland, who has escorted 2,500 high schoolers on college tours during her 17 years as director.

For many, TRIO & Pre-College has made a remarkable difference. As of 2015, more than 5 million Americans had earned a college degree through the TRIO programs, which serve 790,000 students yearly. Since 2006, 100 percent of UWM’s Upward Bound students have graduated from high school; nearly 20 percent of them have graduated from UWM.

“Every student has a success story,” says Holland. “Our role is to give them the tools to write that dynamic story.”

In addition to new students, the programs are seeking new donors and supporters.

“We’re always seeking new partnerships and new students,” says Holland, who promises that she will open the TRIO & Pre-College doors widely but carefully on Oct. 12. There will be new families and big dreams on the other side.

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