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UWO continues tradition of SSS programs offering guidance for first-gen students

UWO continues tradition of SSS programs offering guidance for first-gen students

It's impossible to know where Braini McKenzie would be without the Student Support Services (SSS) program at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

"It was great for me," said McKenzie, who graduated from UW Oshkosh in the spring with an elementary education degree. "I honestly wouldn't be anywhere right now without SSS because that's how I understood how the University works, what resources were available, who to go to if I had questions."

We don't know where she'd be, but we know where she is. This fall McKenzie is continuing her education at the University of Michigan, where she's a few weeks into her pursuit of a master's degree in higher education. It was during her time at UWO-and with the SSS program in particular-that she fell in love with higher ed and set her on this path.

"If it wasn't that push from (the SSS staff) I honestly don't know what I would have done," she said. "They were very instrumental to my journey and I'm thankful for all of them."

SSS, a federally funded TRIO program, helps guide first-generation college students and students from families with a limited income through advising, financial coaching, peer mentoring and more. It's been a benefit-and potentially a life-changer-for hundreds of Titans for decades. Titans just like McKenzie.

A lasting legacy

SSS has been offered at UWO since 1975. The other program specific to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, SSS STEM, launched in Oshkosh in 2015. Together they serve 420 students, providing access to extra resources to ensure their success.

Nancy Harrison was a big part of that success. She retired in August after 14 years as the director of SSS, and later SSS STEM, at UWO. Before wrapping a career of more than 35 years within the UW System, she secured grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education for both programs for another five years.

"Nancy's impact on our programs and students was huge," said Byron Adams, now the interim director and program co-lead with SSS adviser Jason Herman. "I think all the students who have passed through our SSS programs would say Nancy's impact guided them and helped them succeed and graduate from UW Oshkosh."

Nancy Harrison

Harrison was instrumental in bringing SSS STEM to Oshkosh five years ago and keeping the SSS program clipping along through multiple renewal cycles. She also secured the College Success Grant from the Great Lakes Educational Loan Services to provide advising and support services to another 100 first-year students not served by SSS for a three-year run that ended in 2015.

"I can honestly say it's the students who make you do what you do," Harrison said. "We've had amazing students over the 14 years that I've been around. A number of them I plan to stay in contact with. Some are working, a number are in grad school and I know they're going to go on and do great things."

Help along the way

TRIO consists of eight federal outreach and student services programs designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement program is perhaps the most well known. (For those curious: TRIO is not an acronym. The programs were given the TRIO name when three earlier programs-Upward Bound, Talent Search and SSS-were brought together under one banner.)

The services provided by TRIO's SSS programs are laid out by the federal government and include academic advising, tutoring, financial education and financial aid help, among other things.

"A lot of what the SSS staff does is to work with first-generation students and be that person students can go to with answerable questions," Harrison said.

Since UWO has free tutoring for all students through the Center for Academic Resources, that's one requirement already covered outside of SSS. The other required pillars of the programs must be met. There's even a requirement that in a student's first year in the program they must meet with their SSS adviser a minimum of seven times. That's because it's those initial semesters where SSS students will need the most guidance.

"A lot of times these students don't even know what questions to ask," Harrison said. "It's a matter of sitting down and helping them with the resources."

The overarching idea is less complicated than all this suggests: These programs give students a place to go with questions about how to navigate college life-students, specifically, who might not have people in their lives who've been to college or have strong financial safety nets.

"It's a lot of personal support, being the people that students turn to when they have questions," Harrison said. "Even if they are in their fourth or fifth year of school and hit a bump in the road, they know they can come back to SSS and get the assistance they might need."

Just getting started

Like with McKenzie, the momentum often starts at Titan Takeoff-which is around the time SSS staff usually make first contact with eligible students-and rolls on well past commencement.

Braini McKenzie

Kasey Hirst graduated from UWO with a psychology degree in 2019 and is now in the second year of her master's program at Indiana University Bloomington. She's studying social work and hopes to one day work as a team counselor in professional sports.

Hirst praised the SSS program for guiding her as a young undergrad who, as the daughter of parents who never went to college, had a lot of questions. Besides being a big help to her academically, the program had an impact on an even grander scale.

"They helped me prepare myself to lead a fulfilling and successful life, and provided me with more opportunities than I would have ever imagine having without them," Hirst said. "Even to this day, I talk about my time in the TRIO program and how it has helped me in my daily life."

Top photo: Byron Adams (left) and Jason Herman are co-leading the SSS and SSS STEM programs this fall at UWO.

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