For NMSU TRIO program participants, staying connected is critical for success

When in-person classes were moved online in March due to COVID-19, additional barriers to educating students arose. Some obstacles came from limited access to technology, while others were caused by the physical distance the pandemic necessitated.

Staff members from New Mexico State University’s TRIO Student Support Services and TRIO Upward Bound programs have used myriad communication methods to stay connected to participants, including texts, emails, phone calls and Facetime calls, along with platforms such as Zoom, Remind, Canvas and Google Classroom.

TRIO Student Support Services director Carol Hicks said being apart has been difficult.

“Some students need or want that hug, handshake or warm reception they receive when they walk into our office – the reassurance that everything is going to be okay or made manageable,” she said. “They enjoy the comfort of coming into a positive environment for support.”

TRIO SSS, a federally funded program, serves first-generation and low-income students, as well as students with disabilities. At NMSU, 350 students are assisted annually, and the program focuses on academic success, mentoring and tutoring. Online instruction is a new experience for most NMSU TRIO SSS students.

“Unexpected loss of basic needs, employment, health and psychological services, and transitions to online and individual learning … first-generation students have been pushed into a series of unknowns,” Hicks said. “They are also experiencing academic deficits and continue to need mentoring and tutoring to build on skill sets and content knowledge. They need those resource connections – academic, personal, financial.”

Students in NMSU’s TRIO STEM-H Student Support Services program faced similar feelings of disconnection according to Jesslyn Ratliff, TRIO STEM-H SSS director. The program, housed in the College of Engineering, serves 120 students per year who are science, technology, engineering, math and health majors.

NMSU supports three TRIO Upward Bound programs at Gadsden Independent School District/Las Cruces Public Schools, Hatch Valley and Alamogordo high schools. Upward Bound is a federally funded TRIO program that helps low-income and first-generation students attend and graduate from college. Each year, the GISD/LCPS program serves 90 students, while 60 students are supported at both HVHS and AHS.

One of the first things TRIO Upward Bound program GISD/LCPS staff members did was call each participant to listen to his or her concerns.

“As a norm, high school students are very social and upbeat creatures, especially our TRIO UB participants, and now feel a sense of disconnection,” said Rosa de la Torre-Burmeister, TRIO Upward Bound program GISD/LCPS director. “Participants need a sense of reassurance that everything will return to normal. High school seniors want to know they will graduate on time and that none of their hard work and effort will be in vain. Parents want to know that we are available to support their children both academically and personally.”

Additionally, computer virus incidents at both GISD and LCPS created digital and online challenges for TRIO Upward Bound GISD/LCPS participants before COVID-19.

Lourdes Ambriz, TRIO Upward Bound program HVHS director, said COVID-19 impacted participants at a critical time for the Class of 2020 as they were preparing for entrance exams and applying for scholarships.

“Most importantly, they all are at the verge of transitioning from secondary to postsecondary,” Ambriz said. “Our job is essentially to facilitate that process.

“The biggest obstacle is that many of our participants do not have internet service. They live in economically disadvantaged rural areas of Dona Ana County with limited availability and resources,” she said.

Yesenia Talavera, TRIO Upward Bound AHS student program coordinator, reiterated that lack of access to resources during this time was an issue.

“One of the many goals of our programs is to help ‘level the playing field’ for students who have historically had little to no access to resources of all forms. From intellectual to technological, our students need resources that are going to assist them in their ability to succeed academically,” Talavera said.

In addition to the high schools providing devices such as Chromebooks and assistance with technology issues, NMSU’s Information and Communication Technologies helped Upward Bound facilitate hotspots for participants from HVHS, GISD and LCPS. NMSU’s Academic Technology also created Canvas courses and accounts to help Upward Bound provide curriculum for the summer Aggie Bridge and Aggie Academy programs. For more information on the programs at NMSU visit https://ssc.nmsu.edu.