Many middle and high school students across Southwest Virginia have never set foot on a college campus, let alone given much thought to the admissions process or financial aid. For them, higher education can feel out of reach.

Virginia Tech’s TRIO Programs makes college feel possible for first-generation and economically disadvantaged students. By building these students’ “cultural capital” — knowledge gained through experiences such as traveling, touring campuses, visiting museums, and attending classes — the program demystifies higher education and gives students confidence to pursue a degree.

“Many of our students don’t have a lot of experience with how college works,” said Frances Clark, director of TRIO Programs, which is part of Outreach and International Affairs and includes Talent Search and Upward Bound. “When students are the first in their family to attend college, the process seems overwhelming. It’s difficult to know what to do and when to do it.”

Virginia Tech has helped students through Talent Search since the federal program’s start nearly 50 years ago. Thanks to a $1.88 million extension in funding this year, the program will continue to support students in Southwest Virginia for at least another five years.

Talent Search covers a diverse and sprawling region. From rural Appalachian towns to cities such as Lynchburg and Martinsville, the program each year will serve 680 students in 24 schools through 2026. Middle schools in Salem and Franklin County are the latest to join the roster.

“Many of our first-generation students can’t even imagine that they would ever have the opportunity to attend college,” said Curtis Hicks, superintendent of Salem City Schools. “By introducing the idea of attending college sooner, we can ensure that more students are making decisions early in their academic career that will put them on the path to college. Without the support Talent Search provides, the barriers to access would be almost insurmountable for many of our students and their families.” 

At least two-thirds of Talent Search participants must be from low-income backgrounds and families in which neither parent has a bachelor’s degree.

“We work with the schools to identify and help students in sixth through 12th grade who need a little extra support,” Clark said. “College is attainable, and there are ways to make it more affordable.”

The program gives students and their families the information they need to understand college admissions requirements, the scholarships available to them, and the various financial aid programs that can help, Clark said. “And we support them academically as well, working with students to not only help them graduate, but also to overcome any gaps in opportunities that their peers might be receiving.”

Students can attend workshops on topics such as careers, financial literacy, and study skills. Other activities focus on subjects such as STEM or the arts. Monthly sessions on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus provide not just learning but also a taste of college life.

The program isn’t just for those looking to attend Virginia Tech. Students tour other colleges and universities, both in and out of Virginia. About 75 percent of participants go on to pursue a degree after high school. 

“Even if Virginia Tech is not their final choice, we help them feel confident about pursuing a college education through experiences at Virginia Tech,” Clark said.

Students also get opportunities to go on multiday trips to cities such as Baltimore or Atlanta where they visit museums or attend the symphony.

“The chance to travel gives students, many who have rarely left their hometowns, a broader worldview and introduces them to new opportunities and interests,” Clark said.

Meanwhile, parents find support, too, getting tips on paying tuition and supporting students through their transitional senior year. Other benefits include fee waivers for college entrance exams and application fees.

“We show students and their families what to do every step of the way, grade by grade,” said Austin Pryor, assistant director for Talent Search.

For students in sixth grade, for example, that might mean talking about careers and study skills. Seniors, meanwhile, get help with college applications and last-minute details after they are accepted.

“Our students often have complicated situations. It can be difficult to figure out what makes sense for them financially,” Pryor said.

He and other Talent Search advisors help students crunch the numbers, take steps to verify their financial status, or even round up immunization records and dual enrollment credits.

“These things often feel so big and insurmountable. We help them find the best solutions, make the required deadlines, and keep them on track,” Pryor said.

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