Over the next five years, the David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity in Arts, Sciences & Engineering will be receiving an additional $1.3 million dollars thanks to a grant from the US Department of Education (DOE).

The funding, called the Student Support Services (SSS) grant, comes on top of existing support from the DOE that has allowed the Kearns Center to launch initiatives like the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program for undergraduates and the Upward Bound and Talent Search programs for pre-college students.

According to the DOE’s website, the SSS grants are intended “to provide opportunities for academic development, assist students with basic college requirements, and to motivate students toward the successful completion of their postsecondary education.” 

The program is one of the DOE’s Federal TRIO Programs which “serve and assist low-income individuals, first-generation college students, and individuals with disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline from middle school to postbaccalaureate programs.” All five of the TRIO programs offered by the DOE are administered by the Kearns Center.

The new funding will allow the Kearns Center to bring in new staff and grow the services that it offers to reach more first-generation and low-income undergraduates, who hold fewer degrees than their peers.

“We will be able to hire two new, full-time advisors who will work predominantly or exclusively with first-gen students,” said Executive Director of the Kearns Center Dr. Beth Olivares. “We have three advisors who work full-time currently, so adding two nearly doubles our capacity to work with students.”

According to Olivares, about 28% of undergraduates at UR are either low-income or first-generation, but not all of these students have a relationship with the Kearns Center. “The grant itself was written for 140 students, but we will probably end up serving more. In any given class, we have about 200-250 students,” Olivares said.

The Kearns Center’s model of support includes a mix of “intensive academic advising, graduate school preparation, and an emphasis on undergraduate research” aimed to boost on-time graduation and graduate school matriculation rates among its students, according to the Center’s website. Its specific services include tutoring for entry-level chemistry courses that have been statistically shown to cause struggles for low-income and first-generation students. The Center also has a textbook lending program, and a number of programs and resources to support its students in conducting and presenting undergraduate research.

Olivares is optimistic about how the grant funding will allow the Kearns Center to expand these services and offer them to more students. 

“We want to expand our study groups to other courses where the data shows that low-income and first-generation students tend to struggle,” Olivares said. “The funding also allows us to hire more tutors and work even more closely with [the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning] and [the College Center for Advising Services]. It will let us see what the specific needs are of the group of students that we bring in and adapt based on what they need.”

“Our Center doesn’t work unless we’re responsive to students and what they need,” said George McCormick, the Coordinator of First-Generation Student Support at the Kearns Center. “What doesn’t change is mainly the guidance and support we offer students as they work their way toward graduation and beyond; what does change is the specificity of that need.”

As they grapple with the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kearns Center hopes to emphasize their flexibility in how they support affected students. Olivares said the staff at the Kearns Center are evaluating the literature and student input to ensure that needs are being met in this unusual time.

“We will now see — with the class of 2024 and beyond — what the pandemic’s impact has been on the high school experience. It’s going to be interesting to see what influence different models of schooling during the quarantine period will have on students in terms of how they’re willing to navigate coming to college,” Olivares said. “First-generation students already have less in their back pocket about how to navigate a college campus, and remote forms of schooling must also be having an effect.”

In terms of addressing student needs with the new funding, Olivares said that even in unprecedented times, the Kearns Center will follow its traditional and proven approach of “identifying places where students have trouble and then changing policy, fixing pedagogy, and doing whatever it is that we need to do.” 

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