Featured VISTA Blog: Fostering College Access and Retention at Saint Michael's College
By Chris Ricciardi
VHEC’s AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program, which falls under Vermont Campus Compact, focuses on improving college access and success for first generation, low-income, and underrepresented students in Vermont. VHEC currently has 8 VISTA members serving in a variety of offices at 6 different campuses around Vermont. This is the fourth post in a series that highlights individual VISTAs and the increasingly important work they are doing. This post highlights and was written by Chris Ricciardi, the AmeriCorps VISTA serving in Saint Michael's College's Office of Admission as well as their Office of Academic Affairs. Chris is from Tewksbury, MA and is a 2016 graduate of Saint Michael's. Chris was a biochemistry major and is a big Boston Red Sox fan.
As the AmeriCorps VISTA for College Access and Retention at Saint Michael’s College, my role is to help families navigate the college application journey and to assist first-generation and low-income students in having a successful college experience. The college application process can be confusing even for families who have experience with higher education. For first-generation students, it can be a significant roadblock to applying for college. The increased cost of post-secondary education may discourage some individuals who are forced to live on modest means. Even for those who are able to successfully make it into a post-secondary institution, the college campus can be a maze to navigate, from academics to student life.
Helping Students Navigate the Admission Process
My role in the Admission Office at Saint Michael’s College is to find ways to better support first-generation and low-income prospective students in their college search process. One of the most important parts of applying to colleges is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Doing so can qualify a student for federal grants, work-study positions, and loans with favorable interest rates. During the fall semester, I helped set up an email outreach campaign to first-generation students to understand why the FAFSA is important to fill out and how it is easier than it seems. The price tag of a college degree can be a large hurdle for prospective first-generation and low-income students, and qualifying for any need-based aid they may qualify for is an important way to make earning a post-secondary education more of a possibility.
Another way I have helped more students view college as a possibility wasn’t by working with high school seniors, but rather middle-school students. Along with our Visit Coordinator and Associate Director of Admission, I have researched different ways to make K-8 college visits more effective in helping students think of college more as a possibility. This is an ongoing process in further developing the program, but it can be an important way to help students think of college as a possible path for in their futures. We partially do this by talking about ways to be successful in middle school, the different opportunities available in college such as Study Abroad, and more.
Supporting First-Generation Students in Their College Years
Along with my work with prospective first-generation and low-income students, I work with current students through the offices of Academic Affairs and Student Life. I sit on the SMC1st Student Council, which helps organize programming and mentoring for first-generation students at Saint Michael’s. SMC1st creates a community for these students where they can find support during their college years. In March, we held the first annual SMC1st Spring Formal, a dance to both increase campus awareness of SMC1st as well as raise money for a fund to benefit first-generation students. As a VISTA, I solicited donations from on-campus offices and a local organization to raffle off during the night. During the dance, I also managed ticket sales at the door. It was a tremendous success, as many students attended the event and we raised over $180.
Why AmeriCorps VISTA Matters to Me
My path to becoming an AmeriCorps VISTA was not typical. I originally was interested in higher education careers, and the current Director of Admission at Saint Michael’s College mentioned the position during a conversation. After an application and several interviews, I accepted the position. While AmeriCorps was not on my radar as a college student, I have come to see how important the VISTA program is for helping eliminating poverty. I have seen the numerous challenges that first-generation and low-income students face during their college years, as well as students’ determination to earn their college degrees. As a VISTA, I am committed to helping provide the support they need to get into and succeed in college. I do this by providing important information during the college application process, researching best practices for how the Admission office can work with first-generation and low-income prospective students, and supporting on-campus offices committed to student success. Through this, I work serve to help more students have a successful college experience.