PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University will be in a better position to attract, retain and graduate low-income and first-generation college students thanks to two new grants provided by College Spark Washington.
 
 
The Seattle-based foundation supports organizations that help low-income students improve their academic achievement and prepare for and graduate from college.
 
The first grant, valued at $99,999 over three years, will support WSU, Central Washington University, Eastern Washington University, the University of Washington and the Latino Education Achievement Project (LEAP) in forming a new educational access coalition.  WSU will play a leading role in coordinating this statewide initiative.

The second grant, valued at $86,000 over three years, will help institutionalize WSU’s Critical Literacies Achievement Success Program (CLASP). It helps non-privileged students succeed in English 101, a foundational writing course taken by a majority of freshmen.

 
“We are really excited about these grants because they will help WSU, and ultimately many other institutions, provide better services to underserved populations,” said Lucila Loera, assistant vice president for Student Affairs and Enrollment.  “In WSU’s case, these efforts fall right in line with our land-grant heritage.”
 
Educational access coalition
 

Representatives from each granting agency are in the process of forming a core advisory group, which eventually will expand into a comprehensive coalition. The group will meet for the first time on the WSU Pullman campus this summer.
 
One of its first goals is to begin researching best practices for serving low-income, first-generation and HB 1079 students. As defined by House Bill (HB) 1079, these students must have graduated from a Washington state high school (or acquired a GED) and have lived in the United States for at least three consecutive years. Typically they come from farm-working families.
 

Marcela Pattinson, a bilingual financial aid counselor at WSU, said most of these students have lived hard lives and could have taken the easy way out by getting into drugs or gangs. Instead, they discovered they can dream of a better life and often work much harder than the average student to achieve success.

“Their parents want their children to achieve the American dream, but they don’t have the education or knowledge to guide them,” she said. “These students have to clear their own path, and their success often hinges on how badly they want it.”

A perfect example is Margarita, who graduated in May from WSU with a bachelor’s in business administration. Margarita said she fought against daunting odds to achieve her college degree and hopes this grant will make it easier for students following behind her.

“My parents especially would have found peace of mind if they were more educated about the resources available to HB 1079 students,” she said. “If I could go back to my public school years with this planned coalition in place, I can only imagine how many of my classmates I would have brought with me to college.”
  
The goal of the grant is not only to provide students and their families with information that will help them prepare for college and successfully navigate the higher education system once enrolled. It also will provide middle school and high school counselors/ teachers, community service providers and university personnel with best practices so they can do a better job of mentoring students throughout the process.

As an example, Pattinson explained that, because WSU has bicultural faculty and staff strategically placed around campus, students have easier access to a solid network of support.

“We want to share with other universities and organizations what a difference it has made in helping us understand what these students are going through and how best to help them,” she said.
 
Such information could be disseminated in a variety of ways, including establishment of a new website and Facebook site and production of bilingual printed materials and videos.
 
“I am so happy we got this grant because up until now nobody has known just how best to serve these students,” said Pattinson. “This is the first time people from across our state will join together to address the particular needs of these students.”

Jonathan, also a recent WSU graduate, said knowing there are people who care about HB 1079 students will motivate them to be the best students they can be.

“Being able to earn a college degree not only benefits me individually, but also my entire family,” he said. “This grant gives us hope for a bright future.”
  
Loera is impressed with the interest other universities and community organizations have shown in the project. 

“They are eager to partner with us as we strive to strengthen services for these students, no matter where they live or go to school in our state,” she said.
 
Critical Literacies Achievement and Success Program (CLASP)
 
CLASP started as a pilot program at WSU in 2008. It was created in response to the marginal success rate among low-income and first-generation students in English 101, a key introductory writing course.

WSU Athletics, the English department, College Success Foundation Scholars, the College Assistance Migrant Program and Multicultural Student Services banded together to provide these students (including HB 1079 students) with increased academic and institutional social support.

The results have been positive, with 95 percent of the 125 students participating in CLASP last year successfully passing English 101 and earning a B+ average.

Beth Buyserie, assistant director of WSU’s English Composition Program, said they have always known these students were capable of succeeding, but they lack role models to help teach them what it takes to be successful students.
 
A key component of the program requires students to meet with their English instructors once a week outside of class and have them ask at least one question during each session.

“We are trying to get students in the habit of meeting and engaging with their teachers on a regular basis because we know what a big difference it can make to their success in English 101 and ultimately all their classes at WSU,” said Buyserie.
 
She said although program organizers aim to serve more students in the future, the initial focus of the grant will be on increasing the quality of service provided.
  
“We want to work on consistency in terms of the types of support students receive, and this means being more consistent with how our instructors and advisors are trained,” she said. “This will allow us to provide more researched-based training modules that will make them even better advocates for the students.”

Associate Athletic Director Chris Cook believes CLASP will change a lot of lives for the better in the years to come. 

“We are working to provide students who have the odds of success stacked against them with an improved skill set that further empowers them to take a proactive role in their education,” he said.