July 23, 2021
By Sari Byerly
I was struggling in my last undergraduate year at University of Utah, introduced to Kathy Felker, the TRIO director there, and she gave me a job. It helped pay for my housing and my food.
This was a critical moment because I was prepared to walk away from my degree. I am the first in my biological family to attend college and complete a degree. TRIO helped me, not as a student, but as an employee. No matter how you find TRIO, whether as an employee or participant, it really changes, your world.
I started as a student employee, went on to work on a master's degree (at the same institution) and every summer returned to my TRIO job. I worked through the ranks: student employee, advisor, intern, assistant director, director, executive director and now I supervise all the TRIO directors in my current institution.
Kathy Felker was one of TRIO’s founders; she sat me down in the beginning and she said “TRIO is bigger than this office.” She showed me the big picture.
About two years after I started working as a full-time Upward Bound program advisor, the Department of Education selected our program to be part of an absolute priority program evaluation. You couldn't opt out. You had to double-recruit students. You could serve half of them and the other half you could never serve.
The University of Utah Institutional Review Board said they would never sign off on a study where you are basically telling an at-risk population, “Yeah, thanks for filling out the application but no, we get to watch and see if you fail compared to the people who do get served.”
I knew Kathy was working with COE and the region and having phone calls about this awful study. One of the students that didn't get selected was actually a little brother of two students who were already in the program. I had a relationship with that mother. They were a refugee family, and I had to tell her, with her kids translating, that her youngest son was never going to be in the program, based on the study.
Later, I parked on the side of the road and cried. COE — Arnold Mitchem — asked Kathy to get on a red-eye flight to D.C. and present to Senator Orrin Hatch. Kathy was ill though, so she sent me.
I am a first-generation college student, I'd never been to Washington D.C. I went to Nordstrom Rack, bought a suit, figured out the red-eye, trains, and hotel and, after a couple hours sleep, walked into COE for the first time.
My whole world shifted. Sitting in a room with a leader like Dr. Mitchem, getting to tell the story of a student, and to understand advocacy changed me. It changed how I do my work and how I how I see the purpose of service, not just within your community, but how service and advocacy work at the national level — or we don't exist.
I was hooked.
Visiting Senator Hatch was very scary, but I sat in the room with Arnold Mitchem and one of COE’s consultants. They prepped me for everything. When we walked into the Senator's office, I felt comfortable telling the students’ stories.
Sen. Hatch listened to what I was saying and said, “We’ve got to do something about that.” I felt very supported.
[Learn more about the 2007 Upward Bound evaluation here (.pdf).]
The evaluation went away. All across the nation, people were fighting the Department of Education to say you can't do this. COE was fighting the whole way and all these different pieces went into place. I was only one puzzle piece, but every single puzzle piece had to come together. Advocacy at every level and everyone stepping up is really important, because not one individual piece is going to solve it. COE creates all those pieces so we can make sure that these programs continue to serve our communities.
The younger brother of the two Upward Bound students was eventually accepted into the program. I do know he went on to get his bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah.
TRIO would not exist without COE. I 100% believe that. We would not exist in our current form or probably at all.
The support COE gives on advocacy is, hands down, probably the number one benefit.
The other is grant writing. If you do not write a good grant, your community does not continue to be served. I have analyzed other grant-funded programs and no other organization provides the support and grant-writing coaching that COE provides.
COE stays rooted in the communities that it serves. We are a very diverse country; we have territories, regions that have an entire time zone difference in their communities. COE takes all those voices into account. Every single person that's connected to a TRIO program is COE. You stay relevant because you're not just the staff of 10-20 people. The staff help push things forward. But the community is COE.
TRIO gave me the gift to see myself in a different way.
I would not be an assistant vice president without having come through professional experiences in TRIO, without having experienced leadership on the COE board, in my own TRIO community and without TRIO colleagues and students rooting me on. I hope that I continue to try and give that gift back.
Some folks see COE as the staff. They don't see that we’re all COE, TRIO is not separate from COE. It’s the same thing. People expect something tangible: what did you give me? Well, what they gave you was existence.
What I think is misunderstood is the bottom line of how much it costs to be able to run an organization and have staff that work really long hours to make sure we exist in rural Idaho, rural Alaska, or Guam.
I just feel honored to be part of this organization, to be able to do the work I do with TRIO.
Being part of COE is the reason I get up every morning, even on the hard days. The number one thing you can ask for is having a purpose.
COE 2020-2021 Board Chair Dr. Sari Byerly is the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs at Idaho State University, where she has the pleasure of overseeing nine U.S. Department of Education grants.