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Supporting first-generation students at Cleveland Community College

Sam normally comes to my office at least one of the two days I am on his high school campus. He always enters the same way — with a nervous laugh. He is a slight, bespectacled 18-year-old of average height who is quick to serve, laughs easily, and is known by some of his friends as “Grandpa” because of his maturity.

“Ms. Thomas, do you have a minute?”

“Of course, Sam.” I smile, knowing that he is about to hit me with a dozen pointed questions that will take at least 15 minutes to answer. “Come on in and have a seat.”

Sam is a senior in high school. He comes from a family that has encountered financial hardship. Several years back, Sam’s family put most of their resources into a small business venture. Unfortunately, the business was not sustainable and cost them everything—and almost tore their family apart.

Around that time, Sam found a love for all things computer-related. He found parts and built his own computer. He dabbled in programming. He took classes to become certified in MS 2013 Word, Word Expert I & II, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint, and made perfect scores on both his MOS PowerPoint and MOS Word Expert tests. He was so obviously gifted, that as soon as our TRIO Talent Search program was implemented in his school, one of his instructors recommended him.

I spoke with him a time or two and endorsed him for a STEM program at NC State called SATELLITE; he was accepted. I then recommended him for a paid computer intern position during the summers where he faithfully learned and excelled. I have also recommended him for a full-ride scholarship at NC State University, where he hopes to be a Computer Science major. His family is now doing well and is thrilled with Sam’s academic success.

Since neither of Sam’s parents earned a four-year degree, he entered TRIO as a determined sophomore who knew he wanted to earn a bachelor’s degree in a computer-related field but felt very unsure about how to get there. Along with his guidance counselor, caring teachers, and the rest of my TRIO team, I helped Sam explore degree programs, attend college tours, narrow his college list, search for opportunities, find and apply for scholarships, apply to colleges, apply for financial aid, and apply for residency. Seniors run such a marathon on top of maintaining good grades and being involved in extracurricular activities! Currently, I am waiting on pins-and-needles along with Sam’s family to see what scholarships he earns and where he chooses to attend.

Although Sam’s financial situation is similar to many of my students, each story is different. I could tell you about Tasha, who had her second child before finishing high school and still managed to graduate and enter the pre-nursing program at Cleveland Community College. Or about Josh, who is on track to receive a hefty football scholarship for next year and is trying to decide where to attend. Or about Kendra, who had to produce a lot of extra documentation for financial aid because her mother was murdered when she was in elementary school; she completed the process, one step at a time. Or about Alyssa, a minority female student at the top of her class who received a huge scholarship to George Washington University last year to study International Affairs. Or about Kristie who deals with housing insecurity and is figuring out how to complete her high school degree and move on to a community college so she can study graphic design. Or about Derrick, who considered majoring in music but has decided to get a degree in radiography from UNCG and enjoy music as a hobby.

These first-generation students all have a story, and they all have my heart. I believe they benefit tremendously from an additional advocate, someone who helps them navigate the path to college, one new, daunting step at a time.

Cleveland Community College in Shelby, NC is one of dozens of community colleges across the state to host a TRIO program. According to the US Department of Education website, TRIO is federally funded with “eight programs targeted to serve and assist low-income individuals, first-generation college students, and individuals with disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline from middle school to post-baccalaureate programs.”

Our particular program serves over 500 students in Cleveland County. We take students on college tours, help students understand the importance of GPA and course selection, provide financial literacy training and career exploration, offer mentoring and tutoring opportunities, help students apply for college, residency verification, financial aid, and scholarships, and build relationships with our students and their parents in order to support them on their respective journeys to college.

North Carolina community colleges are unquestionably diverse from Central Piedmont Community College with its six campuses, one of which is smack-dab in the middle of uptown Charlotte, to College of the Albemarle, serving seven counties and located mere miles from the coastline and the Shallowbag Bay, to Tri-County Community College, our westernmost community college serving remote, rural communities in the Appalachian Mountains. In addition to the variations in geography, demographics, and structure, community colleges are varied in the types of services they provide to their communities.

You might be surprised at the opportunities and services tied to your local community college. They are not just training and educating local community members so that they can secure jobs, support families, and grow the local economy. Sometimes, they are also hosting programs that assist students like Sam, Tasha, Josh, Kendra, Alyssa, Kristie, Derrick, and many other first-generation students to overcome the seemingly insurmountable hurdles they find along the way from high school to college.

Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect the identities of these students.

Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas is the project director for TRIO Talent Search in Cleveland County, North Carolina. Thomas loves helping students with the process of preparing for college, and she encourages all of her students to look for a future career that will allow them to use their individual gifts so they can give back to their respective communities. Thomas enjoys spending time with her husband and three kids, traveling, hiking in the North Carolina woods, listening to the Avett Brothers, eating spicy/sweet chicken wings, reading novels, writing poems, and doing puzzles.