TRIO equips students with tools for success

Elizabeth Vargas, TRIO program services coordinator, said her challenges in college motivated her to help students navigate their academic journey. Photo by Chantilette Franklin/The Et Cetera

Elizabeth Vargas, TRIO program services coordinator, said her challenges in college motivated her to help students navigate their academic journey. Photo by Chantilette Franklin/The Et Cetera

HARRIET RAMOS, Editor in Chief

When Elizabeth Vargas enrolled at Texas A&M University-Texarkana in the fall of 2013, she thought her biggest challenge was being a first-generation, low-income college student.

She was wrong.

Vargas’s mother and stepfather separated during her freshman year, and then her half-brother attempted suicide.

“I felt like my happy family, my happy home was falling apart,” she said. “And that was just the beginning of everything.”

The next year Vargas’s grandmother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and Vargas was in a car accident where her boyfriend and two friends died.

The accident was the final straw. She was ready to give up on college.

“I was done,” Vargas said. “I told my mom I was coming home, and she said ‘No, you’re not.’ But she also didn’t realize the emotional, mental and physical toll that incident had on me.”

Vargas, now a program services coordinator with TRIO Student Support Services at Eastfield, said her friends and university staff members helped her push through. She graduated from A&M-Texarkana with a master’s degree in communications in 2018.

Vargas’s experiences in college gave her the desire to be a support system for students and help them navigate their academic journey. She joined TRIO in May of this year with that vision in mind.

TRIO, located in C-100, helps students who meet certain qualifications get the academic support they need to thrive in their studies. To be eligible, a student must either be low income, a first-generation college student or have a documented disability. Students are only accepted after an application and interview process.

“I know that sharing my story can impact a lot of students,” Vargas said. “Letting them know that there are obstacles, but this obstacle that I’m facing, I can get through it. It’s just about having faith, having strength, and sometimes it’s not even about being strong. Sometimes you have to remember it’s OK not to be strong, but I have these people that still have my back.”

Vargas said what makes TRIO unique from other programs at Eastfield is they offer a variety of services in one place, including advising, tutoring and transfer assistance. TRIO also makes students aware of financial aid and scholarship options and refers them to counseling services as needed.

Vargas said the program coordinators and peer mentors make an effort to bond with the students and give them the individualized support they need.

Rochelle Mitchell, 39, peer mentor and former TRIO student, said the one-on-one support was what propelled her through school and allowed her to graduate with an associate of science degree in June.

Mitchell was introduced to TRIO by one of her classmates. At the time, she was in her mid-30s and disillusioned with her career as a hairstylist. She was taking her basics at Eastfield and planned to transfer to Brookhaven to get her associate degree in nursing.

“What made TRIO stand out is … that you’re not just a number anymore,” Mitchell said. “It’s much smaller. When [the adviser] sees me, she remembers me. I don’t have to redo the whole story all over again.”

Mitchell said her adviser told her what classes she needed to take and when to take them. She also encouraged Mitchell to work toward a bachelor’s degree, something she had not seriously considered.

Mitchell is now working on her bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas at Arlington nursing program.

Samantha Ortiz, 21, is also a former TRIO student who now works part time in the office as a peer mentor. Her role is to help students with time management and study skills.

“It’s pretty nice to help them out,” Ortiz said. “Make it easy for them, make it less stressful and remind them that we’re here for them as well.”

Ortiz graduated with an associate of science degree in June. She recently applied to the University of Texas Dallas and University of Texas at Austin. Ortiz said she plans to study chemical engineering.

Ortiz said TRIO supported her during the application process and motivated her to move ahead with her studies.

Vargas said that is what TRIO is all about: getting students the education they need and preparing them for a productive career.

“I want to be a support system for the students,” Vargas said. “Students are our future, and I want to help them.”