The Robert Smith building on South Seattle College’s West Seattle campus is less of a building and more of a complex that houses the ancillary functions and services staff, the administration and students need to get through the school year.
Registration? Head to RSB. Need a book for class? The library is there. Planning a student protest? The administration offices can be found near the visitor parking.
This year, the building has even more to offer. Tucked away in the southwest corner, past the cashiers and just beyond the information desk, is a row of three cubicles differentiated from the other gray dividers by a large blue sign printed with blocky, white letters: EOC.
“We’re looking for more space,” said Megan Nord, a student development specialist.
The Education Opportunity Center (EOC) is the newest in a slate of federally funded education support programs that help adult students who are low-income, the first in their family to go to college or veterans. The small staff works with students on registration, career guidance and financial aid. They work with community partners to connect participants with the resources they need to be successful.
The goal is to remove barriers for students who already have extra challenges.
The goal is to remove barriers for students who already have extra challenges, Nord said.
“We’re demystifying the myth, in a lot of ways,” she said.
EOC falls under the umbrella of federal programs known as TRiO, which prepare students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter and complete postsecondary education. Of the five TRiO programs at South Seattle College, three support high school students transitioning into college.
Programs are good at helping high school students, but adults are rarely considered, said John Phillips, assistant director of the TRiO EOC program.
“EOC is unique in that it’s trying to serve an older student, often not as intentionally thought in,” Phillips said.
Students like Roy Katsel, a veteran living in transitional housing.
Katsel seemed uncomfortable talking about himself and his experience going back to school to finish up his degree in business management.
“I’ve got so many credits,” Katsel said.
The 61-year-old stared off into the middle distance from his seat outside Zeitgeist coffee, giving short, brusque answers until he warmed up and the stories of his time on the streets of Seattle, exit into housing and work on his degree began to flow.
Katsel served in the Army between 1973 and 1975. His return to civilian life was bumpy, at best, and much of his education was completed by correspondence while he was “a guest of the government,” as he puts it.
TRiO staff didn’t finish his homework for him, or strong-arm a teacher into a better mark. They helped Katsel fill out his financial aid forms, and if he ran into a problem he knew he could call Phillips and make it right.
“They’re there to assist you,” Katsel said. “They’re not here to wave a magic wand.”
He wouldn’t have done the interview, Katsel said, but the TRiO program had been helpful to him, and he felt like he owed it to them to tell his story.
“It would be nice if [other veterans] knew it was there,” Katsel said.
Unlike high school students, who are easier to help because they’re already in contact with the education system, targeting services to low-income adults can be a challenge.
Unlike high school students, who are easier to help because they’re already in contact with the education system, targeting services to low-income adults can be a challenge. They’re more spread out, and they access different community centers, shelters or housing providers.
As a result, EOC staff do outreach differently. They try to have a presence in transitional housing facilities, create relationships with the Department of Corrections and agencies that serve formerly incarcerated people and reach out to veterans wherever they may be, Phillips said.
Community partners are critical to the EOC’s work in other ways. The program doesn’t have the funding to be a direct provider, and so it must work with outside agencies who have the resources to remove barriers for EOC students, like access to reduced-price Orca cards for transportation.
Although the EOC is based out of South Seattle College, it can plug students into programs all over King County.
“If we can help somebody get into a program at Renton Tech or Highline, we’ll do that,” Phillips said.
Popular programs tend to be practical ones. Nursing and welding programs are in high demand given the dearth of nurses in the medical field and the booming Seattle skyline. Welding has a particular appeal because it’s known as a “second chance” industry that welcomes formerly incarcerated individuals and pays good wages.
The grant that established the EOC will last five years. This year the team of three staff members and three graduate interns is tasked with helping 1,000 students this year — they already have 900 clients.
It was “a reach” to apply for the grant, Nord said, because South Seattle College already has several other TRiO programs and there’s already an EOC in Tacoma. However, there’s not as much support north of Seattle — one student the team assists is from Whidbey Island — and the changing demographics of south Seattle and King County have moved many EOC-eligible students into their catchment area.
“I think the program is helping,” Nord said. “It’s a great bridge, housed within a college setting.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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