A Place to Thrive

The Chico Student Success Center is closing the achievement gap through community

Peer academic mentor Lauren Ericsson, seated second from right, facilitates a game with students in the Raising Educational Achievement in Collaborative Hubs (REACH) program at a welcome-back dinner and awards ceremony in January. 

“Every day, when we walk in the door, the words ‘student success’ are the first thing we see,” said Gary McMahon, director of the Chico Student Success Center (CSSC). “That’s the heart of the center.”

At its location in Student Services Center Room 370—complete with comfy couches, full-service kitchen, computer lab, and textbook lending library—McMahon and his staff have established a learning community that helps first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented minority (URM) students excel.

“We all have a biologically engineered need to connect,” said McMahon. “It’s about being human—if you don’t have that, the experience in the classroom is greatly going to suffer.”  

Student success outcomes are measured by academic progress reports, GPAs, graduation rates, and job preparedness. McMahon says relationships are vital to the results they’re seeing, including matching the University’s overall graduation rate.

“They’re always there for you,” said Victor Rojas (BS, Electrical Engineering, ’15), who graduated in December and is settling into his new career as an associate systems engineer for Calix in Petaluma. “I was there every day, and it had a really big impact on who I am and how I act.”

Like many of the 1,200 students the CSSC serves each year, Rojas first learned about the center during a high school visit to Chico State.

“There’s so much more to college than just going to class,” said Rojas, who honed job skills as a student worker and at the center’s professional etiquette workshops and mock interview sessions. “For most of us, it’s the first time away from our families, the first time anyone has moved away from home, or we’re the first to go to college.”

Chico is 500 miles from his hometown of Montclair, which is located in a congressional district where 72 percent of children live in households with incomes low enough to qualify for government assistance, according to Kids Count Data Center. Rojas is the only one of his siblings to move away after high school.

“Without the CSSC, I probably would have transferred to a school closer to home,” he said, noting the importance of having a place to do work and talk with people from similar backgrounds.

"We seek to change people’s lives every day."—Deanna Pierro

Jacqueline Mendiola Garcia, right, takes part in a “study jam” with other REACH students in Meriam Library.

Jacqueline Mendiola Garcia, right, takes part in a “study jam” with other REACH students in Meriam Library.

For CSSC staff, working with students like Rojas is more than a job.

“We seek to change people’s lives every day,” said Deanna Pierro, the achievement specialist who oversees the center’s new Raising Educational Achievement in Collaborative Hubs (REACH) program.

Only in its second semester, REACH targets first-year students. About half of the 200-plus program participants are recruited from partner high schools, located in predominately low-income and minority communities, while the rest are referred by faculty or staff looking to connect URM students to support and resources.

One of its services is a peer and faculty mentoring program. Juniors and seniors are paired with one of 21 faculty mentors, who together organize bi-weekly “study jams” for "hubs" of 10 students each. They also enroll in U-Courses that have historically high fail rates for URM students and participate in monthly events to connect them to the larger Chico community.

“They really become a tightly knit family throughout the year,” said Pierro. “And results of our early assessment have been extremely positive.”

More than half earned a GPA of 3.0 or higher. Compared to their URM cohort, REACH students have a 10 to 12 percent higher retention rate, 9 percent higher graduation rate, 5 percent higher GPA, and a 97 percent pass rate in U-Courses.

“There’s no reason to not excel,” Rojas said. “If you do struggle, they help you get to the bottom of it.”

Retention specialist Adelle DeMasi tracks students’ progress reports and intervenes at the first sign of trouble, connecting them to resources like tutoring, encouraging them to talk with faculty, and making sure they know people believe in them.

“The students trust us and allow us into their lives,” she said. “That’s what we need in order for those differences to be made.”

Educational partnership coordinator Bertha Alicia Curiel has been instrumental in adding more structured career skill-building to the CSSC’s services.

Students in the REACH program are 9 percent more likely to graduate than other first-generation college students.

Students in the REACH program are 9 percent more likely to graduate than other first-generation college students.

“The opportunities we have to influence people in this center has really found me,” said Curiel, who counts herself lucky to be part of Rojas and other students’ post-graduation successes.

For Rojas, securing a job at Calix months before graduation is one of his proudest accomplishments. “Based on my background, that’s pretty huge for me,” he said.

His first semester at Chico State, Rojas hoped that he would adapt to his new environment, learn a lot, meet new people, and excel, he said. “Now, what I hope for is more of the same thing—adapt to my new environment, excel at my job, and just keep learning. I never want to stop learning.”

Advancement Writer Nicole Williams may be reached at nfwilliams@csuchico.edu

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