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First-generation college students thankful for Cascade’s ROOTS Program
Photos and Story by Abe Proctor
It’s a widely accepted truism that a college education is the gateway to a vastly expanded slate of life choices. A college degree opens doors for people, and enables them to pursue careers that can be far more lucrative – as well as more personally and professionally satisfying – than they would without a college education.
But what if, when it comes to college, you’re on the outside looking in? What if your economic circumstances place college out of reach? What if no one in your family has ever gone to college before? What if you simply need a little support and guidance to be a successful student?
The TRiO Cascade ROOTS Program is on hand to help.
Cascade ROOTS is one of the federally-funded TRiO family of programs, which provide comprehensive wraparound support services to college students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. ROOTS – there’s a program at the Sylvania Campus as well – is geared specifically to support low-income and first-generation students, as well as students with disabilities, as they pursue a transfer degree.
“We scale PCC down so that our students can scale up their social capital and academic success,” said Cascade ROOTS Director Claire Oliveros, who was a TRiO graduate from Western Oregon University.
For first-generation and low-income students in particular, that “scaling down” can be especially important. When you come from a family of limited means, college can seem like an insurmountably expensive undertaking. And when no one else in your family has ever attended college, it can seem impenetrable and intimidating.
The TRiO ROOTS Program tackles these barriers head-on by providing required academic advising, a cohort model of career and guidance college success classes, scholarship search assistance and referral, and by providing academic and social support – mentoring and tutoring, for example – to help students succeed both in and out of the classroom. At Cascade, students in the program have successfully competed for and earned up to $33,000 in scholarships through the PCC Foundation while attending PCC, and some students received up to $50,000 toward continuing their education a four-year institution. The partnership between the ROOTS staff, the Financial Aid Office, and the Foundation prepares students to apply for financial opportunities, helping them to maximize the amount of scholarship and grant funds available to them while avoiding loans to the extent possible.
And there’s an additional incentive, Oliveros said. ROOTS students are required to take three College Success courses designed to help them improve their study skills, academic and career goals, and financial literacy. If they pass these courses with a “C” grade or better, she said, they are eligible to receive a three-term tuition waiver. Moreover, the connections students make to other ROOTS students in these classes are their life line to building a sense of community at Cascade.
Still, ROOTS isn’t for everyone. It’s a rigorous program with a limited number of slots available; at Cascade, the program can admit no more than 133 students per year. Students must maintain good academic standing and solid attendance, and must work with program advisers to create, and follow, an academic plan to meet their scholastic goals. In turn, the program stays in close contact with students to ensure that they stick to their plan and support them when they struggle.
And it’s working. Since 2011, the program has posted a persistence rate of 96 percent; meaning that an overwhelming majority of students are taking their studies seriously, and taking advantage of the support systems that ROOTS offers to help them succeed.
Students snares second chance
The ROOTS formula is working for Floyd Pittman, a member of the first Cascade ROOTS cohort when the program launched in 2011. Pittman was born and raised in Portland, and earned a scholarship to Portland State University thanks to his talent on the baseball field. He was the first member of his family to go to college.
That was 30 years ago.
“I found that I didn’t really enjoy school,” Pittman recalled. “I wasn’t really ready for it at the time, but my family really wanted me to go.”
Pittman dropped out midway through his third year, stopped playing baseball, and before long was struggling with alcohol and drug abuse. After fighting his way back to sobriety, he decided it was time to return to college.
“I had a little bit of my brain left,” he said, laughing, “so I thought I would go back to school.”
Pittman applied for the ROOTS program at Cascade, was accepted, and found that it offered him exactly the right sort of support and encouragement that he needed to overcome his anxieties after so long away from school. He’s thriving in the classroom with a 3.72 grade point average.
“I was a little intimidated at first,” he said, “but it’s been really nice. ROOTS helped me to find my self-worth. It helped me to work harder.”
Pittman said he really appreciates that he is able to keep the same advisers throughout his time at PCC. Building and maintaining those relationships, he said, is a big part of why the program has worked for him. He visits the Cascade ROOTS office every day.
“Once I stop here [at the ROOTS office], I’m OK for the day. It’s part of my routine,” he said. “The people here make me feel important and worthwhile. I have to emphasize that – it’s huge.”
ROOTS provides needed structure
Rebecca Jamieson, also a ROOTS student since 2011, has similar feelings about the support she’s received from the program. A self-described “unschooled” youth – her parents opted for a very open, unstructured, free-flowing educational environment – she found herself yearning for a more regimented, organized setting in which to learn.
“I started craving the structure and resources that college would provide,” Jamieson said.
But at least the first time around, college wasn’t a good fit for her, and she dropped out. After some time away, she decided it was time to give it another try. A friend suggested that she investigate whether PCC had a program for returning students, and she discovered the Cascade ROOTS program. Like Floyd Pittman, Jamieson said that the support and individual attention she’s received from ROOTS staff has made an enormous difference for her – particularly in light of the fact that she needs to work part-time in order to make ends meet.
“I really don’t know if I would have resumed my education without ROOTS,” Jamieson said. “I feel so fortunate. They’ve been incredibly helpful. I didn’t know what a big deal I was getting into.”
ROOTS has also helped Jamieson connect with a number of scholarships – including a prestigious Ford Foundation scholarship – that will enable her to embark on the next phase of her education: pursuing a bachelor’s in English at Portland State, and eventually a master’s degree in art therapy.
“Because of the encouragement of the people in ROOTS, I’ve applied for lots of scholarships I didn’t know existed,” she said. “They’re cheerleaders for scholarships!”
If you think ROOTS might be right for you, visit the PCC ROOTS webpage. Then, check out one of the twice-monthly orientation sessions – from 1 to 2 p.m. on the second and fourth Fridays of each month in room 201 of the Cascade Student Services Building – to learn more.
If it were up to Floyd Pittman, he’d make everyone a ROOTS student.
“They are my foundation here,” he said. “They believed in me. ROOTS has made this whole campus my home.”