November 13, 2020 | Matt Kucinski

A wide shot of students walking on the path near the Commons Lawn at Calvin University.
Students walking through the heart of Calvin University's campus on a fall day.

National statistics show that students from low-income backgrounds, who are the first in their family to attend college, or who have a disability are less likely to stay in or graduate from college.

Over the years, Calvin University has been working to improve that statistic, and compared to its peers, it is doing relatively well. Still, faculty and staff are committed to helping every student, regardless of background, to have an equal opportunity for success.

Creating an equitable experience

“We’re trying to bring these subpopulations with lower [retention and graduation] rates to be on par with our overall retention and six-year graduation rates,” said Julia VanderMolen, a student success specialist at Calvin University. “Some of these goals are quite ambitious, and we know that.”

But the university recently received a grant that will continue to improve the support it can offer these students. The U.S. Department of Education’s Student Support Services Program (SSS) is granting Calvin $935,000 ($187,000 per year for five years) for the institution to provide academic and other support services to low-income, first-generation, and students with disabilities. The goal of the grant is to increase students’ retention and graduation rates by fostering an institutional climate supportive of their success.

“Calvin has great students and we want all of them to flourish here. This grant provides more stability and structure to the work we are doing here at Calvin,” said Kyle Heys, co-director of the Center for Student Success at Calvin University. “We see this grant not only expanding the staffing, programming, and financial resources for these subpopulations of students, but also providing a clearer gateway to the many excellent resources Calvin already offers.”

Shifting the narrative

“We want our students’ perspective to shift from ‘I’m at a deficit because my parents didn’t go to college,’ to ‘I’m resourceful, I’m independent, I have gifts I am bringing that are valuable to this community,’” said VanderMolen. “We want to shift the narrative, and the resources from this grant will help our students to see themselves as valuable members of this community that we want to hear from and see succeed.”

The Center for Student Success will be reaching out to all eligible students later this year to encourage them to apply for the SSS program. The program, for up to 100 students each year, will include opportunities for supportive community, monthly programing on career building and financial wellness, cultural opportunities, Spring break trips, graduate school application support, Calvin gear, and potential grant aid. The grant also provides funding for additional support staff for these subpopulations of students.

*The federal funding provided by TRIO accounts for 86% of grant program costs. The remaining 14% comes from non-governmental sources.

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