URI boosts success of returning, underrepresented students

Posted on
RELAAY program funded with DOE grant

KINGSTON, R.I. – September 4, 2013 – University of Rhode Island sophomore Teeravuth Nokeo hopes to become the first of his family to graduate from college.

He faces an uphill climb. Nationally, only about 52 percent of first-generation college students graduate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Such students often come from families with low incomes or communities with struggling schools, which complicate their ability to pay tuition or excel academically.

Nokeo, from Providence, says college challenges him academically and personally. However, with a new suite of support services made possible because of a grant received by the University, Nokeo, 19, is confident he will graduate.

“I feel like I can do it now,” he said.

With the backing of the U.S. Department of Education grant, the University is in the midst of an ambitious project to help Nokeo and other students from non-traditional backgrounds earn degrees. On Aug. 22, the University received an additional $438,000 to bring the total project to $1.2 million and extend its end date to Oct. 31, 2014.

The money, which funnels from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Access Challenge Grant Program to the R.I. Office of Higher Education to the University, has created one of the largest collaborations ever focused on increasing enrollment and retention of underrepresented students.

Coined Project Recruit and Educate Local At-Risk Adults and Youth (RELAAY), the initiative involves more than six university departments at the Kingston and Providence campuses and targets students that traditionally struggle to enter and successfully complete college. The project also coordinates with four local organizations: The College Crusade, the Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences Program, Educational Talent Search and College Visions. The project began in earnest in September 2012.

“Ensuring students from all backgrounds receive an affordable quality education has always been at the heart of the University’s mission,” Provost Donald DeHayes said. “This project provides a unique opportunity to relay academic, social and financial services to our most vulnerable students.”

The project targets three groups: students returning to college after a long break, traditional students from underrepresented populations, and adults with limited financial resources.

Under URI’s Finish-What-You-Started Program, students seeking to complete a degree after a break in their careers at the University receive comprehensive academic and curricular support. The program’s two coordinators have fielded more than 520 inquiries since January 2012 and reenrolled more than 90. Of those, 22 have graduated and the University expects many more to complete their degrees in the coming years.

Tina Christy, 44, is on track to earn a political science degree in December 2013 after first enrolling at URI in 1986. She left in 1990, returned in 1995 and left again as she juggled work, life and school. Now the Richmond resident and mother of twin daughters is back.

“It’s good to show my children I will finish what I started so many years ago,” she said. “Now maybe I can get my master’s and go to law school. There are lots of opportunities.”

Traditional students just beginning their University careers also see plenty of opportunities thanks to new support services funded by the project.

The project funds four coordinators in Talent Development, URI’s 45-year-old program that provides personal support for students from underrepresented backgrounds. The grant also pays for tutors on the Kingston campus specially trained to work with diverse populations.

School officials report that 97 percent of first-year students served by the grant in the fall of 2012 returned the next spring. That’s better than the University’s 93 percent retention rate for all first-year students and far better than URI’s historical retention of under-served populations and first-generation college students. School leaders and students attribute the retention success to a combination of personalized advising and academic support.

“I feel much more comfortable being here because I have someone to talk to about life and school,” Nokeo said. “It takes a load off my shoulders.”

Nokeo, a public relations major, checks in weekly with Talent Development advisor Kristina Moyet, who helps him with everything from his class schedule to leadership skills. Moyet and her counterparts work closely with grant-funded staff at the Academic Enhancement Center, which provides academic support for students.

Also benefitting from the program is Adler Celice, a Haitian native who arrived in the United States in 2010 expecting to stay six months and then return to his ministry and school for orphans. After an earthquake destroyed his school and home, Celice decided to stay, finding a minimum-wage job making meatballs in Massachusetts.

When he heard about the University’s adult programs for non-traditional students, he saw a way to capture the American Dream. With the help of mentors and learning specialists paid for by the grant, the Providence resident passed transition-to-college courses and was admitted to the University’s bachelor of interdisciplinary studies program.

With plans to stay in the United States indefinitely, Celice, 36, said he seeks a degree that puts him on course for a career in the medical field.

“I want to do something that I feel very proud that I do,” he said.