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How Three McNair Programs Pivoted and Shifted Through the Pandemic

June 21, 2021

By Kate Robins

In March of 2020 more than 14-million college students in the U.S. left campuses for spring break with no idea of what would follow. The threat of the COVID-19 virus loomed over the entire world and institutions took measures to curtail its spread.

“They initially extended our spring break an extra week, thinking that would be enough,” recalls Jon Crider, director of the McNair Scholars Program at Texas Tech University. “Then they said, ‘You’re not coming back to campus,’ so we immediately made the switch to online.”

Easy it sounds, switching to online isn’t simple for many low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities working toward graduate school. Dormitories, for some, were a critical reprieve from difficult home situations, non-conducive to completing enrollment requirements for an advanced degree.

Working computers, wi-fi access, and keeping graduate school a priority while off campus for a seemingly endless stretch of time were just a few of many challenges demanding fierce creativity, resiliency and flexibility.

“I had students who were zooming in from closets since they had limited private space, students zooming in from small family businesses that they needed to help out with,” said Alice Ho, director of the University of California Los Angles McNair Research Scholars Program.

TRIO professional staff scrambled to help student needs. Resources and policies varied from campus to campus. Michael Hunt, director of University of Maryland Baltimore County McNair Scholars Program said his staff personally paid for students’ food on occasion. “Students from underserved communities have had the brunt of the pandemic. Seeing them take on additional jobs on top of a full load of classes is heartbreaking,” he said. A few campuses made exceptions for students in extreme need and allowed them to quarantine alone in single dorms. The isolation for these students was excruciating.

[The deadline to include your McNair Scholars in the annual McNair Scholars Directory has been extended to August 1. Contact Nicole Norfles today at (nicole.norfles@coenet.org) with your plans to submit your Scholars' information.]

Restricted lab access meant research stopped for several students studying everything from lupus to alligators. Others were able to proceed, like a student building a search and rescue robot who could code from home or those who could develop secondary analyses with previously used data sets.

An eight-week summer research institute went on hold as labs shuttered and students scattered to various refuge points. Seasons collapsed into a year of relentless pivoting and shifting. For staff, this included shifting students’ requirements.

“It wasn’t really fair to make some of these things required if students couldn’t access or have the bandwidth, with all the responsibilities on their plate,” Ho said. Many considered taking a gap year.

Directors and staff worked through solutions both with their institutions, which all had different policies, COE and the McNair community (McNair Association of Professionals). Professionals leaned in to each other to learn best practices to manage both program objectives and student needs in such unprecedented times. They created a new service where McNair staff across the country review students’ personal statements for graduate school applications and then meet with those students online to critique them.

Despite hurdles, papers rolled in, students presented their research and applied to graduate school. Next year will be a bit different than expected: some students will graduate a year later than planned, meaning that programs will be more crowded this fall.

Students are, by and large, back. Campus life won’t ever be the same and may in some ways be better. The pandemic’s disruption sped development of technologies, heightening their efficiency, and boosting access to events that were previously unmanageable in person.

Above all, students and directors discovered their own deep resiliency, and bonding strength with each other to stay goal-focused in a time of anxiety-wracking uncertainty.

“McNair is an optional thing. They could have just said, ‘You know what? I’ve got too much going on. I’m done. But all of them stuck around,” Crider says.

Some of the TRIO professionals’ retrospective observations:

  • Students transition well.
  • Students have a healthy default to fight isolation by connecting with others on social media and focused on their mental health and self-care.
  • Social media and zoom rooms are more effective at relaxing students than formal ice-breakers. (McNair UMBC students feel more connected to McNair than UMBC according to a survey last semester).
  • Virtual conferences and meetings eliminate financial and time-consuming barriers so that more students can attend. They’re also less intimidating.
  • Zoom is a more efficient way to coordinate students and graduate school recruiters from around the country.
  • Zoom is a boon for students and staff on very large campuses or institutions with classes spread across multiple campuses.
  • Online documents and e-sign are here to stay.


National Student Leadership Congress 2021 Participants Reflect on a Virtual Program, Receive Laptops as Gift from Comcast Internet Essentials

July 15, 2021

In June, over 200 TRIO pre-college students participated in COE’s virtual 32nd annual National Student Leadership Congress. COE hosts this simulated Congress challenge to establish a national network of emerging leaders and to enable students to understand national issues potentially impacting their futures.

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How COE’s Voice in Washington Strengthens Community, Empowers Students

June 15, 2021

My first job out of graduate school was working with the Pell Institute. I had an opportunity to research issues affecting low-income, first-generation students, like myself; understand the barriers they face and the practices and policies we can put in place to help them through the college-to-workforce pathway.

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Recognizing the Importance of Women Is Always in Season

June 2, 2021

In March, President Maureen Hoyler reflected on what Women’s History Month means for the women in her life, and herself as an advocate for low-income and first-generation students.

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Henry Bonilla Counts the Ways COE Makes a Difference

June 1, 2021

COE has had a profound impact, helping millions of young people from underserved areas who had no exposure to college and are the future of our country. I shudder to think what would happen if not for the vision that Arnold Mitchem had many years ago to start this organization, do the necessary outreach, the training, the advocacy for funds, and contacting federal representatives.

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#TRIODidThat2021: Graduating High School Senior Gives Advice to the Class of 2021

May 6, 2021

Justis: Hello TRIO Community my name is Justis Lopez, I am here with the amazing, magnificent, Alfredo Segura. Thank you so much for being here today.

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At COE’s 40th Anniversary, A Reminder to TRIO Professionals: “We Are COE”

April 21, 2021

I first encountered COE at my first professional position with TRIO at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. My supervisors directed me to COE’s national conference because I was brand new: they wanted me to know about the organization and understand what my role in my new profession was going to be.

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April — A Data Story on Student Debt, by the Pell Institute

April 9, 2021

This month we focus on the United States’ student debt crisis, the ripples of which permeate our society with inequitable consequences for low-income, first-generation, and students of color. The text and charts featured below are meant to provide an overview of past and current national statistics of student debt.

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South Carolina State Representative and TRIO Alumnus Kambrell Garvin Reflects on the National Student Leadership Congress

March 30, 2021

Justis: Thank you so much for the honorable Kambrell Garvin, Representative here for South Carolina. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day to connect with the TRIO Community and NSLC, to share your experience.

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It’s Showtime! Here’s How to Join the Virtual Policy Seminar 2021.

March 18, 2021

COE's 40th Policy Seminar is hosted on the virtual conference platform OpenWater.

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Mental Health in the Age of COVID-19

March 10, 2021

Clinical psychologist Dr. Ashley Doukas says the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic, together with social and political upheaval, has been a reminder our own limitations as both professionals and human beings. Doukas serves victims of trauma, particularly survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, at Bellevue Hospital’s World Trade Center Health Program

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From TRIO Alumni to Congressional Staffers: “TRIO Just Keeps on Giving”

February 26, 2021

On Thursday, February 18, at the virtual Federal TRIO Programs: Uniting for College Access and Success briefing, bipartisan and bicameral Members of Congress and congressional staffers shared their experiences of how TRIO guided them through college graduation and into the halls of Congress.

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At COE’s 40th Anniversary a Time for Reflection, Recommitment and Celebration Emerges

February 25, 2021

Turning 40 is traditionally a time to take stock, to measure the triumphs and lessons of past years and prepare for the challenges to come. In this, COE’s 40th year, we are grateful for all we have accomplished with the help of allies who have accompanied us on our journey.

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What the Wolanin Internship Did for Its First Intern Brandy Dailey

January 11, 2021

The Thomas R. Wolanin Congressional Internship Program is designed to provide individuals who are in the first generation of their families to graduate from college with an opportunity to observe the federal policy-making process first-hand and to participate in that process.

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How TRIO Inspired This Young Political Organizer in Georgia

January 4, 2021

How did Jaylan Scott, a self-described shy, “nerdy kid” become a 20-year-old college student who has held more party offices than most life-long Democrats?

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November — A Data Story on First-Generation Students, by the Pell Institute

November 6, 2020

This month we focus on first-generation students in honor of the nationwide First-Generation Celebrations this week.

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Thanks for Registering for Our Virtual Conference. Here’s What You Need to Know Before You Go!

September 17, 2020

COE's 39th Annual Conference is hosted on the virtual conference platform OpenWater. Login using the same e-mail address you used to register at (https://coenet.secure-platform.com/a).

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Attention, Indiana TRIO Programs — $8K Grants

August 27, 2020

COVID-19 has hit our students and families especially hard. The COE Emergency Grant Aid Initiative provides financial resources to college opportunity programs in Indiana requesting such assistance.

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Major Update! Democratic Party Platform Draft Calls for Doubling Federal TRIO Programs!

July 23, 2020

As a part of our federal engagement with both Republicans and Democrats, we reached out to elected officials sitting on both party platform committees to request inclusion of provisions favorable to TRIO programs.

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COE Mourns the Loss of Two Icons in the Civil Rights Movement

July 20, 2020

The Council for Opportunity in Education and the entire TRIO community mourns the loss of two civil rights giants who pushed for equality for Black Americans — Congressman John Lewis and Reverend C.T. Vivian. Without their sacrifices to ensuring a more just future, there would be no TRIO programs.

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The 2020 Annual Conference Goes 100% Virtual, Register Now!

July 17, 2020

Now that COE is bringing you to San Antonio virtually, there are even more reasons to register! Saving on travel enables you to register more of your program staff. Engage in mutual learning at our 39th Annual Conference to enhance your program and services to your students.

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What You Need, What Your Students Need

March 17, 2020

In this difficult time, I believe COE has two primary responsibilities. First, to the extent feasible, to meet the needs of educators working in college opportunity programs — especially the Federal TRIO programs — and the colleges and agencies that sponsor these programs. Second, to articulate the needs of the students and clients served by TRIO programs.

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Puerto Rico’s Upward Bound T3 Alliance Students Help Respond to Earthquakes

January 24, 2020

After the earthquake in Puerto Rico, the TRIO Upward Bound student participants — members of the T3 Alliance — began their project to set up quake early warning stations for residents.

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First Gen Celebrations Spread Far and Wide in Third Year

November 11, 2019

For the third year, COE and NASPA Center for First-Generation Student Success asked college campuses around the nation to hold rallies, panel discussions, listening sessions, and more in recognition of their first-generation students.

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From Student to Scholar to Public Servant

July 25, 2019

My life would not be the same without the Upward Bound program. I spent three summers as a participant, living and learning alongside other students who dreamed of becoming the first person in their families to attend college. Upward Bound was my support system.

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30th Annual National Student Leadership Congress

June 26, 2019

On June 8-13, the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) hosted the 30th Annual National Student Leadership Congress (NSLC) at Georgetown University. This year, nearly 200 Talent Search, Upward Bound, and Upward Bound Math/Science students from across the country, Puerto Rico, and Guam came to Washington, D.C., to learn, be inspired, and share their stories.

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Campuses Around the Country Celebrate First-Generation Students on November 8!

November 15, 2018

On November 8, 2018 — the 53rd Anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act of 1965 — the Council for Opportunity in Education once again partnered with the Center for First-generation Student Success for the second annual First Generation College Celebration.

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Texas Christian University and the Pursuit of HappineSSS

October 3, 2018

During the Council for Opportunity in Education’s 37th Annual Conference in New York City, Texas Christian University (TCU) was honored as the winner of the Student Support Services 50th Anniversary Student Video Contest.

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2018 Indicators Report Released at National Press Club, Encourages Dialogue among Scholars

June 15, 2018

On May 17, 2018, The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education (Pell Institute) of the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD), released the Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States — 2018 Historical Trend Report at a meeting at the National Press Club.

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Past Presidents Unite for 40th Anniversary of MO-KAN-NE

May 7, 2018

On April 4-6, 2018, the MO-KAN-NE (Missouri-Kansas-Nebraska) Chapter of the Educational Opportunity Association (EOA) celebrated its 40th Anniversary at their Annual Conference.

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Students Celebrate National TRIO Day 2018

March 16, 2018

TRIO Day began on February 24, 1986, when a congressional resolution (H. Con. Res. 278) declared that Saturday, February 28, 1986, should be designated as "National TRIO Day" to commemorate the annual achievements of the Federal TRIO programs.

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The University of Connecticut's Center for Academic Programs Celebrates Their 50th Anniversary

January 29, 2018

On October 28, 2017, the University of Connecticut's Center for Academic Programs (CAP) celebrated 50 years of Changing Lives through Educational Access with a gala on the Storrs campus.

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Campuses Celebrate First-Generation Students

November 22 2017

Here are just some of the activities that occurred around the country on November 8, 2017. Check out #celebratefirstgen on social media to learn even more!

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Capitol Hill Celebrates First-Generation College Students

November 13, 2017

On November 8, 2017, the Council for Opportunity in Education, in partnership with NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, hosted the first annual celebration of First-Generation College Students on Capitol Hill.

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Morehead State University TRIO Program Helps Incarcerated Students

November 2, 2017

Any criminal conviction puts significant barriers before those wanting to improve their lives. It also reduces the pool of job candidates unnecessarily, according to two women who are working to help former inmates become college-bound students.

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McNair: From Limited Opportunities to Undreamed-of Careers

October 10, 2017

Despite a childhood of limited opportunity, Davarian Baldwin dreamed that he could become a politician or lawyer with predictable success.

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Helping Veterans Make the Most of the G.I. Education Bill

July 21, 2017

Julia Gusse can't tell you much about her service in the United States Air Force. She had top-secret clearance.

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Upward Bound Director of 40 Years Finishes His Career Defending Wittenberg University Program

June 14, 2017

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, said the Roman philosopher Seneca. And Eddie Chambers, Upward Bound program director for 40 years at Wittenberg University, was plenty prepared on March 22nd when he landed in Chicago and glanced at his cell phone before making his connecting flight back home to Ohio.

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Penn State's Talent Search Program: Strengthening Schools, Students

May 15, 2017

To sense the passion that Christal Graham-Jones has for her job as a Talent Search counselor, one only has to look at what she calls her "wall of fame," outside her office door at Sharon High School in Pennsylvania.

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TRIO Student Testifies Before Congress

March 31, 2017

Living in Greenville all my life helped me believe in the American Dream. But belief isn't enough. You also need hard work.

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TRIO Helped Homeless Student Succeed; She Helped Shake Up the System

March 14, 2017

After her first year of college, Jessica McCormick got the dreaded letter from the dean: pull your grades up or you'll be dismissed.

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Book Club Blazes Pathways to Leadership

February 27, 2017

"There's something special that happens when you get a group of powerful women in a room... and shut the door," wrote Andrea Wong in the forward of her book, "Secrets of Powerful Women: Leading Change for a New Generation."

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From Homelessness to Entrepreneurship with TRIO as the Spark

January 26, 2017

Ten years ago Hunter Lin was 11 years-old and working two jobs in China. Today he's a graduate nursing student at Johns Hopkins University and founder of a biomedical start-up company that hopes to launch technology at the end of 2017 to change how diseases are diagnosed around in the world. He credits TRIO with giving him a chance.

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As Actress Viola Davis' Star Soars, Others Recall Upward Bound Beginnings

January 3, 2017

When internationally-acclaimed actress Viola Davis gains her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Jan. 5, two special people will be among the many around the world cheering her on: Her older sister, Deloris Grant, and the sisters' earliest acting coach, Ron Stetson.The federal Upward Bound program links all three.

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