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Grant helps college offer help to first-generation, low-income students

M'Angelo Harris wants to be an elementary teacher. He's confident he'll make it, and the TRiO program at Ridgewater College will have played a role. Harris, 26, of Minneapolis, said TRiO has helped him in many ways as a first-generation college s...

A big step
M'Angelo Harris studies Sept. 24 during a math class at Ridgewater College in Willmar. Harris, of Minneapolis, receives assistance through TRiO student support services offered to first-generation or low-income college students. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

M'Angelo Harris wants to be an elementary teacher. He's confident he'll make it, and the TRiO program at Ridgewater College will have played a role. Harris, 26, of Minneapolis, said TRiO has helped him in many ways as a first-generation college student. TRiO has been on campus for five years and will be around for another five years, thanks to a federal grant received this fall.

$237,602 will be provided per year through the grant to help low-income, first-generation or disabled students. The program will bring nearly $1.2 million to the campuses in Willmar and Hutchinson over the course of five years.

The program is available to students in technical or transfer programs. Those who participate must be citizens or permanent residents of the United States.

Harris said he came to Ridgewater because "I needed to focus to get better grades," and that was harder to do when he attended Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Now, he and his younger brother are both students at Ridgewater, where they are also on the football team.

Harris said he wasn't necessarily worried about being able to succeed in school, "but TRiO gave me something more to push for."

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Without the program, "there's a lot of stuff I would have to do on my own," he said. He has been able to borrow textbooks from the program. Instead of spending $200 on a graphing calculator, he could borrow one from TRiO. He's used a laptop loan program, too.

The program also takes students on college tours. Harris is considering St. Cloud State or Concordia College in Moorhead when he transfers.

If he has a question about something, TRiO can be his first stop, he said.

"We're always here to help our students," said TRiO Adviser Kim Boysen.

At the beginning of a semester, she does a lot of academic advising, she said. She tries to help students take the right classes, "so they don't waste time or money."

Boysen teaches workshops, too. Most have to do with study skills, like note-taking. "How do you study if you don't have good notes," she said.

Boysen said she helps students find and apply for four-year schools and teaches a workshop on writing a college application essay.

Without TRiO, some students would struggle, "not only with academics but how to do college," she said.

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"This is basically a retention program," according to TRiO Director Thomas Tie. It serves about 175 Ridgewater students a year.

"There's always been the need on campus," he said. The program is already full for this semester. Referrals from staff members and word of mouth tend to bring students to the program.

The program originally grew out of the War on Poverty in the 1960s, Tie said, and it's particularly important for first-generation and low-income students.

"They're not as familiar with the whole system," he said. "They're not sure how to approach an instructor." For older students, the program helps them learn about computers.

TRiO's name reflects the three services originally offered in 1968. The program has expanded over the years to include mentoring, tutoring, academic guidance and assistance in transferring to four-year schools.

"We check in with students regularly," Tie said. "We try to help with problems, just make sure they're on track."

The program has a lottery to award five $1,000 grants for students each year of the five-year grant period.

A more recent offering is information about financial literacy, with workshops offered on campus and online.

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"The biggest joy is seeing students complete their program ... to see them move to the next step," Tie said.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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