KU TRIO Educational Opportunity Centers provide crucial FAFSA assistance in northeast Kansas

Mon, 06/10/2024


Alicia Marksberry

LAWRENCE — Anyone who has applied for financial aid knows the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can be hard to navigate, and this is especially so for first-generation students. TRIO Educational Opportunity Centers are helping people navigate the process through free public FAFSA assistance sessions.

Housed under the Achievement & Assessment Institute’s Center for Educational Opportunity Programs, TRIO Educational Opportunity Centers are one of seven federal TRIO programs offered at the University of Kansas. But TRIO EOC is not just for current KU students or even high school students. TRIO EOC helps individuals and families trying to overcome barriers to education and financial success in northeast Kansas.

TRIO EOC offers free services, including career exploration, financial literacy workshops, ACT preparation and campus visits. The FAFSA assistance program, offered at multiple locations and over Zoom, is another way for EOC to reach people. Help is available for Douglas, Shawnee and Wyandotte counties and also for Leavenworth and Franklin counties.

“There are numerous individuals who do not have the support at home. It’s much easier if you're working with somebody that's done it over and over than if you're trying to navigate it by yourself the first time,” said Laura Thornburg, EOC academic adviser for Wyandotte County. “I think this program is a great resource to make it happen and help people actually follow through with going to school.”

Melody Lawrence, academic adviser for Shawnee and Douglas counties, is available at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library every Tuesday to offer FAFSA assistance.

“I want people to know that, yes, there might be a barrier, but we're here to help with that. And I always tell the people that I visit with I will help you as long as you want me.”

'Upstream' health intervention

Having the program at the library is an important part of making sure the service is accessible to everyone. Lissa Staley, the community connections librarian at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, said that FAFSA assistance fits with the library’s other offerings.

“People run a lot of errands here for a lot of different things, so they may not be coming here specifically for this, but if they do, they can do a lot of other different things here, too,” Staley said.

The library works with many partners that help people locate the resources they need, including partners such as United Way and the Shawnee Reentry Council. Staley said FAFSA assistance is part of the library’s focus on community health and assistance.

“This program is what we would call an upstream health intervention. Downstream is when you can't pay your rent this month and you need a referral, you don't have food, you want help filling out an application to get on disability. Upstream is when you're going to make a choice to improve your life, which will then have good consequences in the future. And we're going to intervene early before you don't have any food in the pantry because you're going to advance your education to advance your job prospects,” Staley said. “Community health partners talk all the time about upstream health, but they didn’t always say, ‘Oh, and TRIO is at the library,’ but now they do.”

Success stories

Destney Williams and Juan Roman are two people who came to the library in search of help and found Lawrence. Williams was an inmate in the Kansas Department of Corrections for 10 years. When she left, she was looking for resources and assistance.

“Heartland Regional Alcohol and Drug Assessment Center told me to come to the library to check out TRIO ,and I did. And I got a lot more than I expected,” Williams said.

Williams said that she had difficulty adjusting to life after being in prison for so long and that she couldn’t support herself with the jobs she could find.

“I did 10 years, so I was having a problem with working computers. The new phones, the new iPhones, just everything. I was working but was only making $14 an hour, and I just couldn't afford to support myself no matter how many hours I worked. I just could not get ahead,” Williams said.

“I knew that I had to go to school, but I didn't think I could do it. I'm not from Topeka and I didn’t know anyone in Topeka when I got out of prison. They pretty much just kick you out and tell you to figure it out.”

Lawrence was able to help Williams fill out a FAFSA and got her connected to the resources she needed. Williams was accepted into Washburn Tech and graduated from her welding program this spring. She is also pursuing a certification as an electrician.

“TRIO EOC has helped me a lot because I probably would have gone back to prison if Melody was not here for me,” Williams said.

Roman was in a similar situation. He had also spent time in prison and never graduated from high school but wanted to do something to change his life.

“My dream was always to come back to school, but as I got older, I had to put that aside. I started working, but I ended up getting fired and was lost after that,” Roman said. “I walked into the library one day and saw Melody’s stand and I asked her what was going on? You know, what does it take to get into college?”

Lawrence helped Roman with the FAFSA application process and helped him get into Washburn Tech’s electrician program.

“If it wasn't for Melody, I wouldn’t have found my road again. I had my final yesterday, and I scored an 85%, so I am thankful for this opportunity, and I'm not going to let it go to waste,” Roman said. “There are a lot of hurdles you have to jump through, but Melody makes it a lot easier.”

Roman and Williams are just two of many students with similar experiences and backgrounds that come to EOC for FAFSA and other assistance. Lawrence and Thornburg said they want students to be able to achieve their dreams despite the barriers that may be present.

“I want to convey that we are here to support you in any way we possibly can. So don't let those dreams or aspirations of pursuing some extra training or education go by the wayside without coming to see us first, because we'll walk you through all the ins and outs and put you in contact with some great resources to support you throughout your educational experience,” Thornburg said.

Mon, 06/10/2024


Alicia Marksberry

Media Contacts

Chance Dibben

Achievement & Assessment Institute