A Safe Harbor

Lighthouse and Sunset by Roman Potapkin

Funded by a TRiO grant, the university’s Student Support Services is a beacon of light for first-generation college students.

 

When Jacqueline Morgan first came to Marshall from her home state of Maryland, she was at a significant disadvantage. A first-generation college student estranged from her family, she found herself in a new state, in the middle of an unfamiliar city and campus, and without any support to help make the transition. She almost didn’t make it.

“I honestly can’t describe how hard it was,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, I loved Marshall from day one, but I just didn’t think I’d be able to do it in the beginning. I had outside scholarships that helped with my first semester, but looking ahead I didn’t have the money for future semesters. Add to that the stress of being so young and everything so new, I was scared and often felt alone.”

But then she had a conversation with her hall’s Resident Assistant (RA), who also happened to be a member of Marshall’s Student Support Services (SSS), who pointed her to an office and individual that she is quick to say changed her life in ways for which she will be forever thankful.

“While money can be an issue for many of our students, the lack of family support can play an even bigger role on whether a student succeeds or not. So, for those who either don’t have family here, or don’t have family at all, we become that family.”

— Bonnie Bailey, SSS director

“They told me to go to the office and get involved, so I took a leap of faith and headed over,” said Morgan. “And that’s where I met Bonnie. I bawled my eyes out to her at our first meeting, and after I had let it all out, she looked at me and said, ‘It’s OK, we’ll take care of you.’ And that’s who Bonnie is, the person who wants to take care of every student she can.”

Bonnie Bailey, SSS director, went through the same program when she attended Marshall. Nearly 15 years later, she hasn’t lost a step in helping her fellow first-gen students successfully begin and complete their higher education.

Part of the federally-funded TRiO program, SSS specifically focuses on students who are first generation, and often come from lower socioeconomic households. Funded to assist 200 students per year, the office works with undergraduates from all over the country who come to Marshall with little to no support from their families — whether because higher education wasn’t made a priority in their homes, or because their parents simply have no idea how to navigate the intricacies of things like class scheduling and financial aid. The office is also home to a computer lab in which students can print off papers at no cost. Morgan said while a single page may only cost cents, students with a few papers due at the same time may find themselves spending money they needed to eat.

Student Support Services staff and studentsEven if the services provided by SSS went no further than those offered on their webpage such as counseling and the computer lab, the program would help many students be successful. But, it’s the less obvious and talked-about services her office provides that Bailey feels is what makes such a difference in students’ lives. While financial issues obviously can make college stressful, she said one of the things she’s most proud of is providing a community they can be a part of, so they can be successful together.

“I’ve been right there in their shoes,” Bailey said. “While money can be an issue for many of our students, the lack of family support can play an even bigger role on whether a student succeeds or not. So, for those who either don’t have family here, or don’t have family at all, we become that family. We’ve taken students to the DMV, picked them up at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night when they needed a ride home. We do not give up on them. My staff is amazing and deserve much of the credit. I couldn’t do my job without them.”

Family is a favorite buzzword of many organizations who seek to tout a sense of community. Many times it sounds better on paper than it is in reality. But, Bailey said she truly believes family is what has been created at SSS, and Morgan is quick to agree.

“The things Bonnie and SSS did for me is a big reason I didn’t move back to Maryland,” said Morgan, now a teacher at Hurricane High School. “They taught me the difference between blood and true family. I can’t even tell you all the things Bonnie did for me, how much of herself she gave to help me graduate and move on to the next phase of my life.”

Student Support Services staffBailey said she never stops being proud of students like Morgan, and all the others who have made it through her program successfully in the nearly 15 years she’s worked for SSS. It’s not always pretty, and she doesn’t have a magic wand to make everything stress-free, but she tries. She helps teach students how to budget, find scholarships, manage their schedules and more. And there’s one little piece of advice she makes sure to share with all her students to inspire them to graduate: “You can come in, work hard and struggle for four years — or you can quit, go home and struggle for 40.”

But know this ­— if you plan to quit on Bailey’s watch, she won’t make it easy.

Student Support Services is part of the TRiO program. In addition to SSS, Marshall also facilitates four other stand-alone TRiO programs: Upward Bound, Empowering Appalachia Talent Search Program, Heart of Appalachia Talent Search Program and Educational Opportunity Center. More information can be found online at www.marshall.edu/sss.

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About the author: Shane Arrington is a freelance writer living in Beavercreek, Ohio.

Photos: (From second top)

  • Staff and some of the program’s 200 students who utilize the support from the Student  Support Services TRIO program.
  • Those in the office of Student Support Services work to enable low-income students stay in college until they earn their baccalaureate degrees by offering a wide variety of help. From left are Nate Hensley, counselor; Beretta G. Coleman, program assistant; Bonnie Bailey, director; Stephanie Dillon, counselor.