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November 23, 2002

Program puts students on fast track to success

From: News Journal, TX - 23 Nov 2002


KILGORE — With hip-hugging pants and curly black hair that cascades onto her shoulders, Margarita Gonzalez could be any trendy college student.

And without knowing her story, no one would think anything otherwise.

But Gonzalez, 20, is more than meets the eye.

When she was about 5 years old, she was struck by lightning in Miles, the tiny town she grew up in just south of San Angelo. Whether this incident or something else caused her to lose her hearing is unclear, but the young woman grew up wearing hearing aids and learning to read lips to understand the world around her.

She came to Kilgore College in August to begin working on a degree as a physical therapy assistant, but luckily she wasn't on her own.

Three characteristics that set Gonzalez apart from other students — her disability and being the first generation college student from a low-income family — made her eligible for the TRIO Fast Track Program.

Fast Track, which stands for Fostering Academic Support and Transfer, aims to help students complete their degrees at Kilgore before transferring to a four-year university. There are 160 spots available each year, but Bindy Tice, director of the TRIO Fast Track program, said there are now 173 students being served by the program.

"We just squeeze them in," Tice said of the additional students.

The program was born just over a year ago through funding from a U.S. Department of Education grant. The grant is approved for approximately $1 million over the next five years.

TRIO students get assistance in selecting courses so they do not waste time taking classes that will not transfer to their university of choice, Tice said. They are also allowed to check four laptops out to work with at home. Many of the students would not otherwise have that access.

A computer lab also is available to them so they can complete assignments.

Students in the TRIO program have five certified tutors available to help them from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Originally the labs closed at 4:30 p.m., but the extended lab hours allow more students to receive the help they need, said Jude Dubois, a learning specialist.

Dubois chuckles because there are times when students are packed like sardines in the lab. These are generally the times when almost the entire football or basketball teams are getting help. Like any other college students, the top players on the team are required to pass the Texas Academic Skills Program.

Dubois said he checks up on students by finding out what their grades are during the semester. They are sometimes surprised when he asks them how important college is to them and sometimes even recommends ending tutorials if they don't prove they are serious.

Other students just need help figuring out how to study.

"They are so stressed out so we develop individual anxiety strategies to help them relax," he said.

The five tutors in the program are certified each semester. The training helps them understand all learning styles, making them a better fit for students.

Students also have the opportunity to experience cultural events such as operas, musicals and plays.

Gonzalez, who came from a much smaller community than Kilgore, said she is thankful she had a friend like TRIO walking her through. She said she appreciates being able to check out laptops whenever she needs to and says she now has a job working in the TRIO office on campus.

"It would have been so different to adjust to college life, and there would have been nobody to talk to," she said. "I would be unsuccessful without TRIO."

Gonzalez plans on transferring to Angelo State in fall 2004 or spring 2005.

That seems like an eternity away while she is tackling a full load, including English II and biology, but she is focusing on everything step by step.

For information about TRIO, call (903) 988-7592 or stop by Language Arts Room 108 on the campus.

© 2002 Cox Newspapers, Inc.