Student Support Services

Student Support Services and Freshmen Summer Institute help incoming freshmen navigate new university surroundings.




By Barbara Melendez News Writer


TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 3, 2011) – It may be taken for granted by the majority of people going about their everyday activities, but life on a college campus can be as bewildering as an alien planet with sets of rules and codes of behavior that are potentially overwhelming for many.  Fortunately, as anyone who knows can testify, once learned, the rules and codes become increasingly easier to navigate and the cloud of mystery gradually disappears.  Federal and state support is making all the difference in this process for students who have traveled a rocky road to a college education.


The University of South Florida’s first-generation low-income freshmen and sophomores in the Student Support Services Program (SSS) and the Freshman Summer Institute (FSI) get the kind of help that makes all the difference between accomplishment and failure as they deal with being students while burdened with adjusting to an unfamiliar and strange new set of relationships. 


Students in both programs arrive each summer with the potential – based on their high school records and standardized test scores and the desire to succeed – gleaned from their applications, though they may not have met all university admissions criteria.  Both programs’ success rates – 92 percent of freshmen and sophomore participants in good academic standing in SSS and a 90 to 98 percent retention rate of freshmen for FSI – justify the faith put in their capabilities.   

These very high rates also explain why SSS recently received $1.4 million from the U.S. Department of Education to fund the program through August 2015 after a rigorous and highly competitive process.  DOE received 1,475 applications for funding and awarded a total of 1,026 grants throughout the country. 


SSS’s director, Reba Garth proudly displays the letter from Senator Bill Nelson that congratulates her on this grant.  Over the twenty years she has worked in USF’s SSS program, she has seen it grow in complexity as she rose through the ranks to her current position – now serving approximately 220 students in each two-year cohort.  She has a combined 27 years experience with student success programs overall and has acquired over $5 million dollars in federal money to provide services to SSS participants.


 “We have doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers and so many others who have come through the program and have gone on to productive lives in their communities.  What I love is that many of them recommend students to enroll in this program.”


Recognition is not new for the program.  SSS was included in the Department of Educations’ three-year national study of best practices’ “The Student Support Services Program: A Study of Five Exemplary Sites.”  At USF the first year focuses on the transition from high school to college; the second year gets students to think about their future careers. 


“We act as liaisons to all that USF offers in the way of resources,” Garth said.  “We explain how they work and will step in to facilitate those relationships if our students run into problems.  It seems that fear of what to say and do is what often gets in the way.  But once we hold their hands the first time around, we send them on their way with the confidence they can handle such matters themselves.


“A seminar called ‘Goal-Setting: Developing a Life Plan for Success’ is offered each spring to get our students to set short- and long-term goals in the personal and academic lives.  You can’t stay on course without a destination.”


Garth says that finances and being able to feel comfortable in a new and complex environment are the two most daunting obstacles students face.  What she and her staff provide addresses both. 


“Our students rely heavily on financial aid and work/study jobs,” Garth said.  “But we also spend a lot of time with the students on a one-to-one basis that I believe makes a major difference.  Our program also loans laptops to the students.  That essential tool can seem like an unattainable object if your family can’t afford one.  And SSS Scholarships assist students by decreasing their loan burden upon graduation. This proves to be one of our most helpful resources.


As director of the First Generation Access and Pre-collegiate Programs department Mack Davis is another long-serving veteran of the student success process – one that has a long history at USF.  He has 32 years of experience with a population of students similar to that of SSS.  FSI is funded by the State of Florida and works with an average of 200 students each year.  In addition to FSI, the department also includes Student Support Services (SSS), ENLACE@USF, Upward Bound and the College Reachout Program (CROP).


FSI students experience six weeks of living on campus for an introduction to USF’s services and resources so they can make a smooth transition from high school to college life.  Weekly workshops revolve around strategies for academic success and bolster their chances for success.


Starting with orientation for the students and their parents, information on how to apply for financial aid, what’s expected of them, then help with registration, required meetings with counselors throughout each semester, seminars and tutoring services when needed – failure is hardly an option.


“We put it in their minds from day one, four years from now you’ll hear your name announced and you’ll be walking across the stage at the Sun Dome,” Davis said.  “We use different approaches for different students.  The immediate goal is graduation from college.  Personal support makes students believe they can do it and we constantly reinforce that message, ‘You are capable.’  Hard work is what’s expected of you.  The summer residential program opens their eyes, they see other students walking around, going about their business.” 


Ongoing counseling is central and at the core of FSI, SSS and Upward Bound, another student success program Davis oversees.


“Many times I’m amazed that some of our students have no family to turn to, some are even homeless or come from foster care – so many issues on top of typical freshman issues,” Davis said.  “In all the programs we have truly caring and dedicated people who build the trust in our students that makes it possible for them to share their problems and let us help them.” 


The added attention works.


“I’ve seen students move from D’s to C’s and B’s in one semester once we’ve made it clear what’s needed to make that change,” Garth said.  “But this only happens because our students meet regularly with the counselors.”


In both programs, students receive class schedules based on their high school standings and their intended majors. 


“We can tell what the students are prepared for and where they need remedial help,” Davis said.  “Typically their performances have been uneven in high school but they clearly show evidence that with a little help in their weak areas, they can keep up and excel in many cases.  We’re quite adept at identifying those most likely to benefit from this opportunity.”


Both Garth and Davis also make it point to introduce the idea of graduate school to the students for whom college was once such a distant goal. 


“When I look back through my records as we follow the progress of our students, I’m finding more and more masters degrees and doctoral degrees,” Garth said. 


Each student’s success is a point of pride for Garth and Davis.


“The greatest satisfaction is when students come in and say they’re graduating, which happens all the time,” David said.  “It’s not enough to bring them in.  We want to see them complete the whole process and when that is accomplished, I feel personally satisfied.  If we give them a strong foundation then they build on it in subsequent years.”


The support hits home in different ways.


“SSS means family,” said Rowina Harmon, a 22-year-old political science and psychology major is the College of Arts and Sciences.  “SSS goes over and beyond the minimum requirement of helping students be successful.  This program has given me love, support, wisdom and understanding.  All of these things are going to help me achieve my dreams.” 


Harmon changed her career path because of the program.


“While working as a peer counselor in the SSS program at USF, I discovered my passion for helping the next generation of leaders in the college.  Because of this experience, I changed my career goals so that I now plan to pursue a master’s degree in higher education with a concentration in students affairs.”


Elarge McMillon, who is 20 years old and a science education major in the College of Education, said, “They helped me to learn the ropes of the school and how to handle the business issues that I would run into on campus such as tuition fees and financial aid problems.”


Many students in these programs want to stay involved in various ways.  Competition to become peer counselors is strong.  They also join the Student Support Services Club for added camaraderie.  Many share their experiences and serve as role models.    


“Some of our best recruiters are our students and their parents right in their own homes,” Davis said. “They tell us they have a brother or sister or another child at home who would benefit from these programs.”


As first-generation college students, there’s hope they won’t be the last in their own families.


“The intent is this, these students move into society, succeed and are able to send their own children to college to pursue and attain successful careers.  What we do here sets that in motion for the good of our entire society.”