By C.V. Moore
Casey Orndorff came to WVU Tech’s campus as a first-generation college student from Hampshire County. When he failed his first math test, he says he went into panic mode.
“I thought I was going to fail out,” he says.
But then he attended one of the school’s Student Support Services (SSS) workshops on test-taking skills and learned to keep his calm, keep track of time and go for partial credit. He scored over 100 percent on his next test.
Targeting kids who are at high risk for academic failure, SSS and its sister program, Upward Bound, serve 305 first-generation, low-income and disabled students in the WVU Tech region. They are both part of a group of federal programs known collectively as TRIO.
Wednesday, the school will mark National TRIO Day with an event from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the third floor of Old Main.
It will be an opportunity for the WVU Tech community to stop by and talk about careers, grad school, study skills and a host of other issues that TRIO addresses.
Now almost 50 years old, TRIO is an outgrowth of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty. It originated with three programs, which inspired the name. Upward Bound was one of those.
There are currently 29 TRIO programs statewide, according to Patricia Hopkins, interim director of Tech’s SSS program.
Before students ever make it to college, the Upward Bound program prepares them to make the most out of high school.
They help students find funding and resources for college through scholarships, grants, free tutoring and test preparation.
Low-income and first-generation college students from seven target high schools — Clay County, Fayetteville, Meadow Bridge, Midland Trail, Oak Hill, Riverside and Valley — are eligible to participate.
Students start in the ninth grade and carry through their senior year.
“We follow them all the way through,” explains Jennifer Bunner, program director. “We are getting them to think beyond the week that they are in, planning in the long term for what they want to do.”
The goal is for 65 percent of high school graduates in the target area to enroll in college and for 30 percent to complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
A full-time academic counselor offers mini-workshops at schools on topics like note-taking and goal-setting and works one on one with students on their specific academic needs.
Monthly sessions on the WVU Tech campus give students a chance to get more comfortable with the college environment.
To help them gain exposure to the range of local colleges and universities, the program offers 15 college visits over the course of four years.
The centerpiece of Upward Bound is a six-week summer residential program during which students attend enrichment classes in Montgomery, mimicking a college schedule.
Jordan Thompson, a senior at WVU Tech and editor of the school newspaper, hails from just up the river in Boomer. She comes from a low-income background and is a first-generation college-goer.
Helping out during Upward Bound’s summer program, Thompson says she recognizes something of herself in the high school students.
“You can tell they are nervous and unsure,” she says. “I had no idea what I was supposed to do about the application process. I was so confused. My mom could help a little bit, but I wish I had had the chance to be involved in Upward Bound because I don’t think I got enough help in applying to schools.”
But by the time the program ended, Thompson says she saw a change. “I saw the fact that these kids were getting serious about wanting to go to college.”
“Especially for low-income students, sometimes there’s not a lot of positive influence that tells them to reach for more and push themselves,” Thompson added. “I think (Upward Bound) does a really good job instilling confidence in these kids, and I think confidence is the most important thing for going to college.”
Once they’ve made it to graduation and if they apply and are accepted at WVU Tech, the school’s SSS program picks them up and tries to get them through their four-year degree.
“From my experience, when you come out of high school, especially in West Virginia, you think you know the world, but at the same time when you hit that first test cycle, you realize you need help,” says Orndorff. “That’s where SSS comes in. They help you prepare for the transition and help you gain confidence.
“If I hadn’t had it freshman year, I could have been a statistic and dropped out.”
Now Orndorff holds down a 4.0 GPA and is preparing to go to grad school. He tutors his peers in math and engineering.
SSS offers counseling on study skills, test-taking and time management, as well as free tutoring and exposure to cultural activities like visits to New York City for a musical or NASA’s facilities in Florida.
Hopkins says that one of the most important aspects of SSS is helping first-year students make their transition from high school into a college setting.
“We see a big change in students from the time they are freshmen to juniors and seniors, especially how they develop socially,” she says.
The program is totally voluntary and requires documentation of eligibility to enroll.
Bunner says there’s been a continued push to get more West Virginians to go to college or finish their degrees, which makes the possibility of a 5.1 percent cut in TRIO’s federal budget all the more alarming.
Upward Bound at WVU Tech is currently funded by a five-year, $1.8 million grant received in 2012. The SSS received $1.7 million for five years in 2010.
But March’s proposed federal budget cuts could impact the program’s future funding scenario.
“The way for us to continue to get funding is for the general public to reach out to their elected officials and continue to let them know that these programs are essential,” she says. “When areas are looked at to be cut, education is a critical piece that the state and the country thinks is important.”