For first-generation college students, another boost at FIU with $1 million grant

Jessica Pintado, 23, at her spring 2015 graduation from Florida International University. The program that she said propelled her to success, Student Support Services, recently renewed its funding from the U.S. Department of Education.
Jessica Pintado, 23, at her spring 2015 graduation from Florida International University. The program that she said propelled her to success, Student Support Services, recently renewed its funding from the U.S. Department of Education. For the Miami Herald

Jessica Pintado began Florida International University unsure of herself academically and professionally.

A first-generation college student, Pintado, 23, started at a disadvantage. She didn’t know much about applying for scholarships, managing her time or finding a research position.

She couldn’t afford tutoring.

But now, Pintado is researching HIV through a post-graduate program at Mount. Sinai Hospital in New York, and she credits her success to FIU’s Student Support Services program.

The program, developed to help low-income, first-generation college students navigate college, recently renewed its funding with a $1.1 million five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education as part of its TRIO program for disadvantaged students.

Pintado is one of 770 students served by the program since it began in 1997. In her four years at FIU, she met with her adviser monthly, received free tutoring and networked her way to conferences, scholarships and graduate programs she said she’d never dreamed of attending.

“I felt a sense of relief when I got accepted, but it really hit me four or five months into the program when I started seeing changes in my grades,” she said. “It was great having them there to really understand my struggle and catch me when I’m slipping.”

Jeannette Cruz, program director, said the target student for SSS is a first-generation college student — the first in a family to attend college — with demonstrated low income who struggles academically.

“We’re not looking for the valedictorians and the salutatorians. We’re looking for students for whom this project makes a difference,” she said. “That’s where the program has the most impact.”

In Pintado’s case, the impact was a new-found self-confidence to apply for bigger and better programs, like the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, another TRIO program for minority students seeking MDs and Ph.Ds.

Pintado said she never saw herself as someone who would get a fellowship, much less go on to become a scholar in the Post Baccalaureate Research Program in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

Cruz’s constant support was her guiding force, Pintado said.

“She was pressuring me and pressuring me — in a good way,” Pintado said.

This pressure is important for first-generation college students, Cruz said. Low-income students earn bachelor's degrees at an average rate of 21 percent, as compared with 45 percent for high-income students, according to the Council for Opportunity in Education. Without guidance from programs like SSS, Cruz said many students drop out of school.

“We are very intentional and intrusive in what we do,” she said.

SSS exists to fill in the cracks for students from a less privileged background than some of their college peers, she said.

First-generation students may lack family members to guide them through their college experience, Cruz said, or they may have gone to disadvantaged schools that didn’t prioritize study skills.

Cruz, who has worked with SSS for 17 years, finds students in need through applications on the program’s website and referrals from high school programs.

This year nearly 3,000 universities competed for the 1,079 grant awards, Cruz said.

Grants are awarded every every four to five years. FIU received its first grant in 1997, and its reign of grant awards was only interrupted in 2005, when FIU wasn’t selected. From 2005 to 2010 the program was dissolved, and Cruz was reassigned.

“I’m confident, five years from now when we’re competing for it again, we’ll get it,” Cruz said.

As for Pintado, her future may hold an MD, or even an Ph.D with a focus on her passion — public health.

Either way, she said, she intends to find a way to give back to the community and pass on the help she received in her career journey.

Alex Harris is on Twitter @harrisalexc

More on FIU’s Student Support Services

  • FIU’s SSS 2014-2015 cohort had a retention rate of 95 percent. Of those, 96 percent are in good academic standing (GPA above 2.0) and 58 percent hold a GPA greater than 3.0.
  • The program has served at total of 770 students. In the last academic year, it served 174 students.
  • FIU received the U.S. Department of Education grant from 1997-2001, 2001-2005, 2010-2015 and from 2015-2020.