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When Samantha Flores was growing up in a small Illinois town, she didn’t have a lot of resources to help her make decisions about her future after high school. Now, a month into her new job at Kirkwood Community College, she aims to guide young students in similar situations. Ms. Flores is the program advisor for the federally-funded TRIO Talent Search program, which has been made possible by a $277,367 U.S. Department of Education grant awarded to Kirkwood last November. TRIO Talent Search is an educational program that supports sixth- through 12th-graders, primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, interested in post-secondary education. The program’s goals include increasing middle school and high school retention, graduation rates and enrollment into any college of the student’s choice. Support services will consist of academic support workshops, tutoring, financial aid resources, monthly one-on-one check-ins with program advisors and college visits. The Kirkwood program is accepting 500 students from area schools. Two-thirds of them must be low-income and potential first-generation college students. This means their parents did not graduate from a four-year institution, and they live in a household determined to be low-income. A third of the program’s participants can be any student between the ages of 11 and 27, regardless of income. The program will serve seven schools in the Corridor: Washington High School, Metro High School, Jefferson High School, Roosevelt Creative Corridor Business Academy and Wilson Middle School in Cedar Rapids; Elizabeth Tate High School in Iowa City and Midland middle and high schools in Wyoming in rural Jones County. “The number one thing is really focusing on retaining the students,” Ms. Flores said. “We will be offering a tutoring platform that students can access 24/7 when they are struggling with math or science or reading. We also are planning on hiring part-time tutors to actually go to the schools and work in small groups or one-on-one with students.” For high school freshman and sophomore students, the focus will be on planning courses to prepare them for college, including exploring available dual enrollment courses with a community college. “We’re planting that seed to let them know there’s all of these opportunities educationally that can help them by the time they end up getting to college,” she said. Students will receive help preparing for entrance exams such as the ACT, applying for scholarships and taking college visits during their junior and senior years. In addition, all students in the program will have the opportunity to participate in a summer STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) course through robotics and computer science training and partnerships in the community. Workshops covering mental health and financial literacy will be available for students and their parents or guardians. Ms. Flores’ background, she says, provides her with first-hand experience to relate to students targeted for the TRIO program. “I’m a low-income, first-gen student. So, I went to college and was very confused, grew up primarily in a single-parent household and didn’t really have anyone to turn to,” she said. After graduating from a four-year university with a degree in psychology, she joined an AmeriCorps program similar to the TRIO Talent Search, focused on college access and success. “I was stationed at a low-income high school in Chicago where I was helping juniors and seniors do the ACT prep and leading workshops after school to talk about what’s a social fit and what’s a financial fit,” she said “That’s where I really got a taste of, ‘Wait, this can be a job? I had no idea.’ It was nice to work with students and say, ‘Hey, don’t make the same mistakes I did. Let’s look at all of your options. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and got a lot of knowledge from it. And now I’m getting trained in all these areas. Let’s work together.’” She is currently visiting the seven participating schools in the TRIO program, introduced last summer. Recruitment begins this month and will include both a student and parent/guardian application. The program will roll out this summer and fully launch at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year. “My goal, ultimately, is just to give them the knowledge so then they can make their best-informed decision,” she said. “We’re just wanting to be that extra layer that can encourage students to go to college and get that job that they want. We’re not going to be making decisions for them. We’re just going to provide them with information so that the student can make that decision for themselves.”