By JUDITH KELLIHER
Michelle Cruz-Maysonet was struggling so much with intermediate algebra she considered dropping the class.
The early childhood education major hoped, though, that a tutor could help get her through the rough spots instead.
So she turned to STRIVE, and she was right.
For the past 23 years, HCC's STRIVE program has served low-income, first-generation college students, and students with disabilities who need an extra academic boost. Participating students have access to learning coaches, tutors, and student-mentors.
Besides weekly sessions with a math tutor, Cruz-Maysonet meets with a learning coach every Wednesday to help her manage her time better and gain more knowledge in the classroom.
"He has helped me learn better listening skills to pick up on what I need to focus on for my notetaking. He is teaching me how to be aware of what's important in my classes," said Cruz-Maysonet, 32, who has participated in STRIVE since spring 2015.
STRIVE also provides students with access to learning specialists and academic counselors, a partnership vice president of Student Affairs Yanina Vargas says has helped increase student retention and graduation rates.
Cruz-Maysonet is one of more than 200 HCC students each year who participate in STRIVE. The federally funded program was recently approved for another five-year grant, which runs until August 2020.
The main goal of STRIVE -- Students Together Reach Individual Visions of Excellence -- is to help students become academically successful and obtain essential skills and tools needed to further their education, not just earn an associate degree, though that too is important, said STRIVE director Elsie Rodriguez-Garcia.
"We want our students to be as competitive as possible and to find financial stability at the end and provide for their families," she said.
As a majority of students who attend HCC fall under at least one of the STRIVE eligibility categories, the program was established to provide access for students who were severely underrepresented in higher education, Vargas said.
"This program provides support services directly to students in a way that attempts to create a level playing field, which we haven't really had in higher education," she said. "Sadly, we haven't reached a point where underrepresented groups have the same opportunities."
STRIVE staff and coaches are able to provide personal attention and support for students, whether in financial literacy, advising, additional tutoring, and more.
"It is a program that looks at the students individually and what he or she particularly might need. It's not a one-size-fits-all," Rodriguez-Garcia said.
The key to the STRIVE program's success is the one-on-one counseling participating students receive, whether from a tutor, learning coach or academic counselor, Rodriguez-Garcia said.
"The relationship that's built and the trust that's formed between them is tremendous. That student feels more and more comfortable every time they meet," she said. "They are able to open up and share a lot more in terms of what may be bothering them or talk about the barriers."
Before midterm exams, STRIVE staff send out student academic performance report requests to professors of STRIVE participants to identify early on if students are struggling in any classes.
Another way STRIVE students are able to succeed is through the help of mentors. It is a peer-mentoring model in which more experienced students work one-on-one with other STRIVE students, said Denise Roy, STRIVE learning specialist. In order to serve as a mentor, students must carry at least 18 credits, have a minimum GPA of 2.75 and have a strong familiarity with the college. Mentors must undergo 10 hours of training.
Newly accepted students in the STRIVE program are informed of the availability of mentors, but are not required to work with one. Mentees get matched with mentors who have similar goals, academic interests and life experiences. The mentor and mentee meet for at least one hour a week.
"A lot of students in STRIVE are first-generation students so they lack the information they need about how the college works and where to go for certain things," Roy said. "Mentors can really guide them, take them to the places they need to go to and help them communicate with professors."
Qualities that make a good mentor include being committed and passionate about HCC and possessing a warm and open personality. Programs like STRIVE give students a sense of self-worth that proves invaluable to someone's ability to succeed, Roy said.
Vargas said STRIVE has the ability to serve as a model for other programs and areas on campus.
"STRIVE is really in a way our own experiment on best practices," she said. "We've learned so much from the successes of STRIVE. I feel we are very lucky to have the federal funding to continue to explore those opportunities and learn what works for students at a smaller scale and then make those efforts, scale them up and offer them to all students."
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) HCC student Michelle Cruz-Maysonet talks to STRIVE counselor Denise Salgado. (Right) STRIVE mentors Hannah Cole and Lyubou Parks talk about their plans after graduating from HCC. (Thumbnail) STRIVE mentors and advisors advertise their program during the the HCC Welcome Back Barbecue last fall.