Posted on Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Melanie Harber (left) and her College Success Coach, Sarah Mercado

College Success Coach Initiative Opens Doors and Helps Students Succeed

Submitted by Amanda Christopher, workforce communications coordinator, Virginia’s Community Colleges

Melanie Harber always dreamt about going to college but it wasn’t until age 34 that she woke up one day and decided to make it happen. She enrolled in online courses at Mountain Empire Community College (MECC) and soon received a flyer advertising the College Success Coach Initiative (CSCI). Melanie connected with MECC’s College Success Coach, Sarah Mercado, and the pieces of the support system she needed to excel in college fell into place.

“Sarah has been able to answer all of my questions. I call her the ‘MECC Yoda.’ For example, I needed a scientific calculator and she got it for me. I had an issue with financial aid and she immediately stepped in to put my fears to rest. She is my connection to the school,” said Harber.

Mountain Empire Community College is one of 10 Virginia Community Colleges that offers the College Success Coach Initiative. (Other colleges include Dabney S. Lancaster, Danville, Eastern Shore, Patrick Henry, Paul D. Camp, Rappahannock, Southwest Virginia, Virginia Highlands and Wytheville).

The goal of the program, which started in 2012 and has served nearly 5,000 students, is to increase college success through coaches who identify underserved students at their institutions and provide support services when needed. Each success coach maintains a caseload of 100 students throughout the year.

“Our students have a lot of unique obstacles,” said Mercado. “It’s rural and impoverished here. Students have major transportation issues, so we help with by purchasing bus passes and gas cards for them. A lot of our students live more than an hour away. We also have a food pantry with emergency supplies and connect the students to community resources for long-term solutions.”

The target population for CSCI are individuals considered underserved based on race/ethnicity, Pell status, and those who are first-generation college students.

“The difference between a student who knows there is someone there if they need them and one who doesn’t is phenomenal. We don’t necessarily talk to students every week but having the security to have someone available makes a tremendous difference for them,” said Mercado.

And it’s not just the students and coaches who are raving about the benefits of this program. The performance measures show this program is life changing.

When compared with their peers not participating in CSCI, students working with a success coach have higher course completion rates, higher graduation rates, higher college retention rates and higher rates of transferring to four-year colleges and universities.

“Many of the students served by CSCI have never been on a college campus, so the novelty and complexities of being there can be a challenge,” said Jim Andre, director of adult coaching and transition programming at the Virginia Community College System. “CSCI coaches actively engage with students and potential students to help them navigate their way. This method is unique because coaches identify students early on instead of waiting for them to seek services.

“Coaches incorporate innovative programs,” Andre continued, “to help provide services and monitor students’ progress, like S.T.E.P.S at Paul D. Camp Community Colleges, and SAILS or EAB Navigate at other colleges. With this focus, CSCI significantly contributes to student achievement and the objectives of our Complete 2021 strategic plan at participating colleges.”

Harber’s plan is to pursue an associate degree in general studies at MECC and then transfer to a four-year college where she will seek a bachelor’s degree in human services and counseling. She wants to join the fight against the widespread substance abuse in southwest Virginia.

“Melanie’s drive inspires me,” Mercado added. “She has such compassion toward finishing her education. She wants to be an example to her children which makes me work even harder to help her and everyone else.”'

Amanda Christopher

Amanda Christopher is a graduate of Hollins University and Virginia Commonwealth University. A native of the DC metro area, Amanda worked in public relations for the American Red Cross before joining the Virginia Community College System as the Workforce Communications Coordinator.

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