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


April 21, 2021

By Kyle Ethelbah

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.

When I first encountered COE, the issue was how No Child Left Behind affected TRIO. COE helped us think about this in a way that made sense, both to our programs and at the national level. Up until then we all knew that TRIO worked but we hadn’t had an opportunity to tell a strong, nationwide cohesive story. COE helped us direct our programming and to tell our stories with impact.

Prior to working for TRIO, I’d been to other national conferences but never really felt like I was plugged in. Conversations on the policy level were above my pay grade. COE was the first time in my career that I felt that I was part of a larger organization, a body of individuals that really had a say.

From access of services to certain populations to extending services to immigrants or non-U.S. citizens — DACA recipients specifically, COE engages in conversations that bring issues forward to the national level.

Practices COE encourages build on lessons TRIO first engrained.

One of the most helpful lessons COE teaches is the importance of engaging with legislators locally and at the national policy level. That has allowed us to engage in more nuanced conversations within our populations in terms of what it means to be a TRIO professional. The Executive Leadership Institute and the Emerging Leaders programs were born of this.

A lot of the leaders within the TRIO community come from the populations we serve. In a lot of cases we’re the first in our families to be at the table on anything. The executive leadership programs assist professionals in using their very powerful voices that are otherwise unknown in a lot of our institutions.

As a TRIO alumnus, I learned many lessons, too. First, the basics of how to engage in a classroom. Sit at the front and ask questions if you’re unsure about what’s going on. I always sit up front because people need to know who I am, that I represent a constituency that’s not usually represented and to use my voice because it’s going to impact students that I serve and their families and communities. The next one is family. TRIO has been my family. It has guided me through my professional and personal life. Were it not for TRIO, I don’t believe I would have the life that I have. Engaging in these conversations is important for my professional development and keeps me connected to people l have come to know as family members from across the country.

If you’re a TRIO professional, you are COE.

We’ve always done advocacy very well, making sure that our different regions had the resources to provide services for our low-income communities. At the turn of the century, when “first-generation” began to emerge as a conversation in higher education, we saw that we could mold the conversation at the national level. We’re partnering with organizations around this. Our professionals have the sense of the larger conversation in higher education, associations and industries. Early on, TRIO really kind of sat in the corner by ourselves. We are now at the table.

[Click here to make a special $40 contribution to COE to commemorate the anniversary.]

I wish more people understood that COE is not the oversight organization or dictates what policy is going to be. The reality is COE brings people together to have conversations about current policy, what our voice means to this conversation, and how we can have impact. If you’re a TRIO professional, you really are COE because COE seeks your input, seeks your voice, and seeks the voices of your students. Students in Salt Lake City don’t have the same issues as those in a village in Alaska who might have to fly to get to the program. We make sure needs are not overlooked; COE does not dictate that.

When I’m engaging in conversations with my colleagues in the TRIO community, I feel like I’m heard. We can disagree on the way we approach and handle certain things but at the end of the day we are fighting for a common cause and that ultimately binds us and that makes us family. COE has really given me that confidence to be able to now speak up.

Kyle Ethelbah is past chair of COE’s Board of Directors and director of federal TRIO programs at the University of Utah overseeing the Student Support Services (SSS) and Upward Bound (UB) projects.