UK program helps first-generation, low-income students navigate college

Gloria Maldonado, a senior at the University of Kentucky, is the first person in her family to go to college. She received help from Student Support Services and now manages its tutoring program.
Gloria Maldonado, a senior at the University of Kentucky, is the first person in her family to go to college. She received help from Student Support Services and now manages its tutoring program.

When Gloria Maldonado was still at Bryan Station High School, she remembers college reps coming to talk about the University of Kentucky. The first in her family to plan to go to college, “I didn’t even know what an alumni was,” she recalled.

That’s one of the many almost imperceptible challenges that face low-income and first-generation college students, a vocabulary that often doesn’t include them.

“Everything about college was new to me,” said Maldonado, 21, who’s now a senior at UK majoring in dietetics.

Maldonado won a Charles Parker scholarship to attend UK and soon found refuge at Student Support Services, which helps first-generation, low-income and disabled students cope with everything from financial aid to tutoring.

“It’s things like understanding what a book voucher is or how to talk to a professor,” Maldonado said. As a single mother to now 5-year-old Azila, she needed academic and moral support to get through her freshman year. Today, she is the coordinating tutor for the office.

SSS, as it’s called, is part of the Office of Institutional Diversity. It’s broader goal is to improve graduation and retention rates among students at the highest risk of dropping out. They offer a broad umbrella of services, including tutoring, and workshops in study skills, and personal and career mentoring. SSS works with students from smaller programs, such as First Scholars, a national scholarship program for first-generation students, and the Robinson Scholars Program for students from Eastern Kentucky, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college.

Since its creation in 1993, UK’s SSS program has served 1,500 students with a graduation rate of 45 percent to 58 percent in the past five years. About 20 percent of that total went on to professional or graduate schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the national graduation rate for this population is 25 percent to 30 percent.

Retention rates for SSS — the number of students who return for their second year — range from 92 percent in 2008 to 98 percent in 2013. Both of those are higher than UK’s retention rate of 82.6 percent.

The success rates might be why SSS received a recent $5 million grant from the Department of Education, which funds most of its activities.

“I think the reason why we’re successful is because we try to do a one-stop shop,” said director Lydia Wims. “We have the ability to focus in on their financial aid. If their aid is stuck in verification, we help them facilitate. We have tutoring in-house, we counsel and help them.”

The bright fourth-floor office at UK’s Multidisciplinary Building is a warm refuge for many students from a wide array of backgrounds, from urban city centers or rural Appalachia.

“The differences they bring to the program and the discussions we have will help them in the work force when they leave here,” Wims said.

Kierra Crawford, a senior from Louisville, stops by the office between classes.

“This office has provided me a comfortable, familylike atmosphere,” she said. “I can come here and study, and get whatever help I need.”

Wims said one of the major problems she sees is a general lack of preparedness for college work.

Hayley Washington would agree. A UK freshman, she graduated from Tates Creek High School without having written anything longer than a two-page paper. When she got her first assignment for 10-page paper, she was petrified.

“That was stressful,” she said. But with the help of her SSS tutor, Washington has gotten the extra help she needed.

“It really helps,” she said. “Whenever I need help revising a paper, they’ll look at it. I can go there and do homework, and they helped me plan my schedule for next semester.”

First-generation students make up about 30 percent of UK’s student body, and programs like SSS need even more expansion to help them, Wims said.

“We know there’s no way they can earn the same amount of money without a college degree,” she said. “This can’t do anything but elevate the state, financially as well as educationally.”

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford