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Several summers ago, I completed a 10-week service of AmeriCorps VISTA at the Office of Pre-College Programs at Central College in Pella, IA, (my undergraduate school). In the office of Pre-College Programs, I had the opportunity to work alongside the men and women who devote their lives to helping students eligible for TRIO programs in the Des Moines and Pella areas.

TRIO programs are federal, nationwide programs that allow low-income and potential first generation college students to maintain the level of support they need to make sure they are successful in their college and career endeavors. Central College’s TRIO programs include Upward Bound and Upward Bound Math & Science, Educational Talent Search, and Student Support Services.

Upward Bound/Upward Bound Math & Science as well as Educational Talent Search provide junior high and high school students programs that teach skills that they will need in high school, college, and beyond, and make them aware of the opportunities they have. Student Support Services works with past ETS and UB/UBMS students who are attending college, granting support and assistance when needed and ultimately providing mentoring roles.

I played several roles this summer in the Office of Pre-College Programs. Central College’s Upward Bound/Upward Bound Math & Science programs invite their students entering grades 10 through freshman year of college to a six-week summer residential program where they take classes during the day and participate in intramurals and other activities at night.

My tasks during the residential program were varied, including chauffeuring students to and from the health clinic if they fell ill, serving as an additional residential monitor, monitoring trays at meals to ensure students were eating healthily—a requirement for the program to keep its federal Food Service Agreement (a grant that pays for the students’ food). I was also tasked with event planning and contacting community partners, leading forums and discussions, guest teaching in courses occasionally, and providing any additional assistance necessary.

In between all of this and during the four weeks after the program, I created curriculum for Educational Talent Search to use for the next school year, covering the topics of Healthy Lifestyles and Financial Literacy. Overall, I created over a dozen lesson plans, including activities and handouts.

Through my experience, I learned several things about the TRIO programs. First, I learned that being around teenagers for six weeks is terrifying, exciting and rewarding. The students I had the opportunity to work with were from a variety of backgrounds. Some recently immigrated to the United States with their families, or are first generation American citizens—bringing an entirely new cultural perspective to the group of students. Some students were from rural areas, some from the city of Des Moines.

Most importantly, they were all unique, intelligent, gifted young adults that have far more potential and motivation than some of the most affluent and privileged people I have encountered. For some, the summer program was an opportunity for adventure, a new place with new people to meet. For others, it was a mixture of a prison and fun—school during the summer was an awful concept, but the experiences they had with meeting new people and the activities they participated in were great. Activities were varied—including anything from Minute to Win It, Fear Factor, a Zumba lesson, teambuilding, and thoughtful discussion.

TRIO programs give these truly amazing students opportunities they may not have otherwise. From mentoring and friendships to the motivation and information they need about college and financial aid, these students are benefitting tremendously from TRIO.

I also benefited tremendously from the people I worked with during the summer. They too have a variety of backgrounds—some have master’s degrees, some are past TRIO students, and all of them have the patience, loving personalities, and genuine care that it takes to make these programs successful. They dedicate their lives to providing for these students what oftentimes their families or schools cannot, and for that, they have become my inspiration to do more for others.

I entered AmeriCorps VISTA thinking that I was going to spend 10 weeks of my summer assisting others and learning about others and myself in the process. What I did not expect was to gain an entirely new perspective on a federal program that ignorant minds sometimes refer to as “welfare” for students. I have the utmost respect for the men and women who work for these programs, and I have immense respect for the students who are courageous enough to take part in them and realize the bright futures they have ahead of them.

By Stephanie Heiken

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