UAF students and advocates celebrated at National TRiO Day event

Student Support Services (SSS) is one of the eight designated TRiO programs that aims to identify and serve “individuals disadvantaged backgrounds.” TRiO stands for the three original programs (Talent Search, Upward Bound, and Student Support Services) that were authorized under the Higher Education Act of 1965. 

For students in the program, SSS provides invaluable help and resources to complete a college degree. Students can qualify by meeting low-income requirements, being the first generation in their family to earn a degree, or having a gap in their college education.

Along with Student Support Services, UAF also provides services through the Upward Bound program which provides guidance and educational opportunities to college-bound high school students. The third of the original programs, Talent Search, aims to encourage “persons who have not completed education programs at the secondary or postsecondary level to enter or reenter” and finish their degree.

Celebrating shared success

Dr. Alexander Hirsch speaking on the TRiO Day Panel (Photo taken by Victoria Avery)

TRiO Day is celebrated annually and UAF held its celebration Thursday, February 21, in the Wood Center Multi Level Lounge. The panel discussed the importance of equal education opportunities for underrepresented populations and emphasized the need for more collaboration between departments, especially in these times of uncertain budget cuts. The panel consisted of Dr. Arleigh Reynolds representing the BLaST program, Amy Cross from the Nanook Diversity and Action Council, the director of the Honors House, Dr. Alexander Hirsch, and current SSS student senior Karissa Paschall.

The TRiO Achiever award was given to the UAF Director of Admissions, Samara Taber, for her advocacy as a former student in the program.

Senator Lisa Murkowski’s office was recognized with the TRiO Champion Award for their advocacy of TRIO programs at UAF. Special Assistant to the senator, Trina Bailey, accepted the award and read a letter from Murkowski aloud. She also spoke on her experiences as a first generation college student, and what it meant to her for graduating with her Bachelor’s degree.

Sarah Curtis holding the SSS office mascot, “TRiOculus,” handmade by former adviser Dana Kinzy (Photo taken by JR Ancheta)

Provost Dr. Prakash provided words of encouragement and relayed her own life experiences of first arriving in Fairbanks from India. Provost Prakash encouraged students to seek out help when they need it because they are not alone here at UAF.

The event was well attended with over 60 faculty, staff, students, and community members including City Council Member Shoshana Kun and Assembly Member Leah Berman Williams for the 2019 TRIO Day.

The student speaker for the event, Charles Rossiter, also spoke on his life experiences as a DJ and a music rep for Warner Brothers and how big of a deal it is that he gets to walk this spring to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree. In an interview leading up to the event, he gave additional details about his story.

Completing a dream, 20 years later

Twenty years, ago, Rossiter began college at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. He never imagined that 20 years later, after several states, a few universities and over 100 credit hours later, he would be finishing up a bachelor’s degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Originally from Fairbanks, Rossiter grew up in a military family, living on Eielson Air Force Base but his father was moved to Nebraska when Rossiter was 15.

“I didn’t graduate high school. I always tried to do things other other ways, not bad ways to get around things, but different,” Rossiter said. “When someone says, ‘You have to do it this way,’ and I was like ‘Why can’t we do it this way?’”

He always struggled with math in particular and recalls a poster in his 9th grade math that was pivotal in the direction he took.

“One side [of the poster] had levels of math and on the other side it had all the jobs you could get. So there was one job that you could have that didn’t require any math and that was DJing. So I told myself, ‘Well if anything fails I’ll just become a DJ,'” he said. “And that’s what I ended up doing. I had my own DJ company and I ran it for 15 years.”

Originally starting his business in high school, at 20 years old he worked as a DJ for a fraternity at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO). He really liked the guys but realized that the only way to get into the fraternity himself was to be accepted into the university.  Without ACT scores or even a GED, he had a bit of catching up to do.

He passed the GED exam as well as the ACT without really studying.

“I just took [the ACT]; never even heard about it before but passed it and got a decent score,” he said.

When he spoke with an admissions adviser at UNO, she brought to his attention that out of the 16 high school classes required to be admitted, he only had 4.

Rossiter recalls, “She told me, ‘I’m going to let you go to school here and I’m going to approve your application and you will be admitted into this university but if your grades fall below a 2.0 at any point you will be kicked out and never be able to [return to] a university ever again.’”

At that point he purposed to never let his GPA fall below a 3.5, which he has kept up throughout the years.

“I never screwed that up because she gave me this opportunity that I knew I would have never ever gotten anywhere else,” he said. “I now had my foot in the door.”

It was certainly a challenge for him and he remembers struggling through some of the courses to keep up with his peers, given the gaps in his high school education.

He was majoring in Philosophy but ended up quitting the program, working as a DJ and bartending instead to make ends meet. Later on, he returned to study radio engineering and production for a time but after turning down a job offer with Warner Bros. in California, he found himself back in Fairbanks.

Rossiter speaking to the TRiO Day audience (Photo taken by Victoria Avery)

When he returned in 2009, Rossiter initially worked as a waiter and bartender, but ended up managing two local bars because of all his cumulative experience in the industry.

He still held a desire to return to school, though, so he started a two-year associate degree program at UAF Community & Technical College (CTC) for Early Childhood Education. He found it to be too much, though, particularly because of the early morning children’s programs he needed to attend following late nights of work.

After another break from school while continuing to manage bars, he finally decided to get out of the business entirely.

He said, “It was something I didn’t want to do anymore because of the hours. I’d been in the industry for 20 years and I was done with it.”

“I decided to come back to UAF because I’d had so many classes from different areas and had so many college credits and so much money in student loans,” he said. “I had so many credits that I should have had a degree I just didn’t.” 

Somehow, with all the starts and stops of classes at various universities, he had managed to avoid math entirely.

“I was bouncing around between too many schools and never took a math class,” he recalls. “If I would have continued to get my degree [at one school] they would have had some requirements but I wasn’t taking general requirements, I was just doing specialty classes.”

Since becoming a student again, he has now taken three, although two “didn’t matter.”

“I took one for Early Childhood Education then I took a Developmental Math course just to get me back into the idea of doing math.” He went on, “But last semester I took 113 [Numbers and Society] which is the the only math that’s required for my degree. I ended up with a really high B which I was really happy with, but I had to put a lot of effort into it.”

In addition to avoiding math, somehow he had never had an adviser at any of his previous schools.

“I never understood everything that was required, I just was interested in learning. So finally, for the first time, it was the fall of 2017, I met with my first adviser, 18 years after I started college”

He was uncertain which degree to pursue, but when he learned about the Interdisciplinary Studies option he was sold.

“I didn’t know that any school would offer something like this.”

With the help of his advisers he was able to cut the time required to complete a bachelor degree down to two years by using his transferred credits to count towards requirements for the BA program.

He is now completing his final semester at UAF and will be graduating with honors in May. This is a “huge deal” for guy who never graduated high school and almost got away with never taking a math class.

As for what’s next, he is contemplating his options. He is interested in possibilities teaching in the bush or maybe even going overseas. 

He jokes, “I have to actually become an adult now at some point,” but continues, “I have [an] opportunity to go to Germany so I might move [there]. … I always want to come back to Alaska, though, this is my home.”

Valuable services and resources for students

Rossiter was very motivated but now realizes that wasn’t enough.

“I think it would have helped a lot, but I still wouldn’t have had direction,” he said. “I would have taken classes that might not have helped me in my degree and I didn’t really understand DegreeWorks.”

Victoria Smith sees it similarly from her perspective, as director of Student Support Services.

“I think [Charles] is a really good example of a returning student with the motivation and the skills to be successful but just needing somebody to help navigate and assist them after returning to college.”

Beyond the advising, he is grateful for the simple services that SSS offers.

“Having a coffee maker, a place to study, and a place to come up and use a printer–[these are] very logistical services they offer but that are extremely important,” Rossiter said. “To be able to go up and even ask a simple thing like ‘Can you look at this term paper?’ or ‘What do you think about this scholarship essay?’ or asking my adviser about [the ELIF building] and whether or not there are good places to study.”

Simply being able to grab an orange between classes when he’s hungry makes a “huge difference as far as my mentality and spirit.”

“[All] of that helped me out way more than just the motivation I had to finish the degree. It gave me the doors to walk through and it opened up doors for me that I just wouldn’t have known were there,” he said.

Samara Taber also recognizes the valuable help available at SSS.

“Their staff is exceptional and not to say that all the staff at UAF isn’t great but when I go into the TRiO office I just instantaneously feel welcomed.”

Taber was a member of SSS when she attended UAF, and is receiving the TRiO Achiever award for her advocacy and commitment to educational access in her position(s) in the Office of Admissions.

Finding a way to pay

After maxing out his Pell Grant and student loan options, Rossiter has needed to rely on scholarships to pay for school–an additional incentive to keep his grades up. His regular adviser as well as those at SSS have connected him with scholarship options.

“I think there is only one [scholarship] that wasn’t through SSS directly but it was all from the advice of my advisers letting me know, ‘Hey these are opportunities that come about and you should apply for these scholarships.’” he recalls. “So at least all my tuition is paid for and I have a lot of oatmeal,” he laughs.

Taber found herself in a similar situation when she was a student at UAF. As a first generation, low income student, making ends meet was tough.

“Throughout college I just struggled tremendously financially. It was really, really hard. I went to the food bank and I was just barely making it through,” she said.

Forging new paths

Rossiter and Taber both qualified for SSS as low-income, first-generation college students, meaning they were the first in their families to seek and obtain a college degree.  After high school, both of Rossiter’s parents began working so they were never able to give him advice on attending a university.

Rossiter explains, “My dad had taken a couple classes and my mom had taken some computer classes but neither of them had ever graduated from college.” He continued, “I would never blame my parents or regret anything but they didn’t have very much direction to give me when it came to college because it was something they’d never experienced.”

Taber had a similar experience.

I was first-generation, low income, my parents always said to go to college but they absolutely had no idea how to advise me about how that would happen,” she said.

Although they didn’t have the finances or experience to guide her down that road, she is grateful for her parents’ undying support and encouragement in taking the college path.

Passion on a mission

Victoria Smith knows the program well after being involved as a student then becoming an adviser after graduation. Smith began in the TRiO programs as a middle school student, and continued in the “pipeline” of programs through college. Working for SSS was simply a continuation of this journey.

“[It] was my second professional job and has been the focus of my life’s work since then. It very much became clear to me that I found the place I was supposed to be,” she said.

UAF Student Support Services Staff pictured with Dr. Prakash (Photo taken by JR Ancheta)

After being in multiple TRiO programs, she understands the student population well and from her vantage point working as director, she sees the efficacy of the model. 

She continued, “The services we [provide have] direct impact on student success and I think very few people get to see that direct application of services and seeing students be successful.”

Taber has also enjoyed seeing similar impact on the student population with her work in the admissions office.

Beginning in her previous position as Associate Director of Admissions at UAF, Taber’s self-described “passion project” has been focused around removing cumbersome requirements for students to apply and be admitted to UAF, especially those who are low-income, first generation, or non-traditional.

“The thing I accomplished that was kind of a passion project of mine for a long time was [looking] into how it would work to allow students to apply for admission with self-reported test scores and unofficial transcripts, just for reviewing purposes,” Taber said.

She found that the University of California, among other schools, had been doing it this way since 1984.

“Many of our students have a lot of different community college credits from many different places and asking for official copies to even simply review them is very expensive,” she said.

Someone who might simply want to take online classes through UAF might be turned away by this requirement, she notes.

“If [a student] had gone to a lot of different schools, it’s really not unusual to have five or six different transcripts. Most schools charge $50 to $75 per transcript plus the application fee, and to me that’s a barrier,” she said. “I wanted to remove those barriers.”

In cases like these, she sees an individual showing “persistence and resilience,” trying to finish something they may have started years ago. 

Due to her efforts, UAF has adopted the same admissions policy, only requiring self-reported test scores and unofficial transcripts for the initial application. If a student is accepted, official documents are still required after being admitted “incomplete,” but they have more information to make that decision about which university to attend.

Now, as director, Taber continues to advocate for students who are just like she was– lacking resources and often basic knowledge about how to navigate the ropes of higher education.

A seat at the table

Smith recognizes the trade-off she now has as director of SSS  but knows it is worthwhile.

“It’s hard because as I’ve moved into the director position, I’ve had to downsize my caseload of students,” Smith said.

“Not that I don’t still get to interact or advocate, it’s just to be able to do that higher level advocacy you have to have a seat in the chair at the meeting,” she continued, “and if I’m at a meeting, I’m not really available for students.”

One thing she has noticed since moving up to her position is the invitations to advocate at those meetings.

“It’s been so great to be invited to the table. … We’re getting invited a lot more and the University has been seeing the value in the work that we do and that is so encouraging,” Smith said.

Taber sees the same effect in her position, now being able to advocate for students on a larger scale.

“One of the ways I enjoy growing in my career is that I feel like the decisions I make impact a wider breadth of student,” she said.

Advocacy and awards

Senator Lisa Murkowski’s office received an award for their advocacy of UAF’s TRiO programs.  After almost losing the Upward Bound program last year after a budgetary error on the grant application that disqualified them from even being read by the Department of Education, Murkowski and her team saved the program.

“To get the Department of Education to backtrack on something and reread grants that they didn’t even have the money for, some serious work happened behind the scenes to make that happen,” Smith said.

Taber received the TRiO Achiever Award this year. This award is given to a student who previously went through a TRiO program and who, as Smith puts it, “has gone on to do great things in their life after graduating and moving into the workforce.”

As the Director of Admissions, she is in a place where, like Smith, she can more rigorously advocate for students who were just like her when she came to college.

Smith went on to describe Taber, “She’s so passionate about it which is what I get really excited about. Seeing somebody who has that equal level of passion in a department that isn’t mine, you know? To see people in admissions and in the registrar’s office who care just as much as I do, that makes it really meaningful.”

Encouraging students to continue on

Samara Taber speaking at the event (Photo taken by Victoria Avery)

Taber wants to remind students that no matter how dire their situation feels, they are not alone.

“At the Office of Admissions, we have quite a few first generation college students as staff, like I am.” 

She continued, “I just think it’s important that students understand that there are so many people that are just like you that maybe seem like they’ve accomplished all these things and they’re super professional but they were absolutely in the same position you are in.”

She now realizes she was certainly not alone when she first came to UAF.

“I just felt embarrassed; I just didn’t know that I was surrounded by so many people that knew what I was going through.”

Rossiter often gives his nieces, who are in high school, advice about their future college decision. 

“I always tell them to go to school.  Whether they know what they want to do or not they can still go to school because the opportunities they will have after they graduate are way more than they have if they don’t graduate.”