September 22, 2021
By T. Chris George
I started in TRIO in 1999. When you’re just an advisor, you don’t really know much about what’s going on outside of your campus or your state. My first encounter with COE was around 2005. My then-director told me to go to the COE Policy Seminar. President Bush wanted to zero out Talent Search and Upward Bound. Dr. Mitchem instructed us, “flood the call center at the Capitol, show them our power!”
That was the first time I got to do a congressional visit. I was excited and hoping to see Jim Bunning, (the only baseball player ever elected to the U.S. Senate and the Baseball Hall of Fame), but we only got to see a legislative aide. That first visit is captivating: you’re wide-eyed. We tell people going for the first time to embrace the experience. We’re there to do business: we need money for low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities. As Dr. Mitchem says, “No permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just a permanent agenda.”
Not only did those TRIO programs not get zeroed out, after sequestration, TRIO was one of the only sets of Department of Education-funded programs that got its money back. And we’ve since gone over a billion dollars in funding. COE knows what it’s doing and gets the job done.
I don’t think we would have been anywhere near that success without the vision of Dr. Mitchem and Maureen Hoyler and their making us a bipartisan program. We don’t have a partisan issue. Democrat or Republican: I’m down with whomever is down with TRIO.
This group of programs that started in the 1960s with the War on Poverty wouldn’t be where they are without COE’s vision, mission and organizing that started in the 1980’s. We’re a very small lobby in the grand scheme of things, but we’re low-hanging fruit that can probably get pulled quickly in appropriation discussions. TRIO professionals and students need to understand that in COE they have a very powerful lobby in DC with the track record to prove it.
And on the 40th Anniversary, we see how the center has held during COVID. Being nimble is important, and out of crisis came creativity. One year ago, we were set to go to Policy Seminar and Maureen pivoted and took us online. TRIO became a leader in virtual education. We had to quickly pivot to make sure that Upward Bound students had their summer component, McNair students’ research components continued, and SSS students had FAFSAs done. COE was at the forefront of putting on workshops, teaching people how to support students in a virtual world. COE kept pushing and had a great annual conference, another Policy Seminar this year, and we’re set for a big reboot in Atlanta.
In the process, leadership development has really gone up to another level. We’ve probably had more participants in our onboarding in a virtual capacity. With virtual you’re reaching more and more people and in cost-effective ways.
I was very fortunate to go to the European Access Network conference as part of COE’s study tour in Europe in 2019. It enabled me to connect with the people I traveled with and speak with European leaders in higher education, and it changed my worldview. A small group of us visited a concentration camp. I still haven’t fully processed that.
It’s just a privilege to be able to walk in the footsteps of some giants in the TRIO and COE movement. It’s not a job to me; it’s a passion, it’s a movement, and I would do it for free.
T. Chris George is the 2021-2022 Chair-Elect of the COE Board of Directors and is director of Student Support Services at Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College.