The TRIO Student Success Program: Amber Gill

by Stasia Lopez /
Stasia Lopez's picture
Nov 07, 2013 / 0 comments

For many students who are going off to college, they are the first in their families to attend higher education. They are dubbed first-generation, for being the first in the family to obtain an education. They also may or may not have had much academic preparation or guidance prior to attending college, and often feel lost in the process. Personally, I really resonate with how many of these first-generation college students feel, because I was the first to attend college in my family, as well. Today in our College Programming Series, we are featuring the TRIO Student Success Program, a government grant-funded program dedicated to assisting first-generation college students. Graduate school was where I heard about TRIO for the first time, and I even got to intern in a TRIO office while completing my graduate degree. Our interview today will feature Ms. Amber Gill, who was both a student and paraprofessional in the program. A two-time graduate from Western Michigan University, she received her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Comparative Religion in 2011, and her Masters in Higher Education and Student Affairs in 2013. Read below Amber’s interview on her experiences with TRIO and see if the program is right for you too!


The TRIO Student Success Program: Amber Gill


How did you prepare to go to college?

Academically, I felt I was well prepared since I prepped myself by taking AP courses. That was extremely helpful in preparing for the level of writing and style of testing that I was going to experience. I was also involved in some clubs (Writing Club and Gay Straight Alliance), which I felt prepared me for juggling academic commitments with social commitments. To be honest, other than that, I knew very little about what I was getting myself into. I had toured a couple of colleges, including WMU, but I didn’t know what to expect.


How did you hear about TRIO and what motivated you to join the program? Is there an ideal student who can get into the program? Any restrictions?

The TRIO program I was a part of has a neat recruitment process. First, they find all students who are attending orientation who are first generation and low income. Then, they send out letters to the students explaining the program and the students are invited to meet with a TRIO staff member the morning of the first day at orientation. The staff member talks with the student and gets to know why they are at WMU, explains to them the program, and then the staff member decides if they want to accept the student or not (kind of like an informal interview process). There are also separate processes for transfer students and students who didn’t attend orientation, but my personal experience was the traditional recruitment process. Funny enough, I don’t remember my letter at all but I do remember meeting with a staff member, Rich McMullen. He explained the program to my mom and I, and it all sounded so great I was hesitant to sign up, because it sounded too good to be true. I mean all the advisors, priority registration, events, a work center, mentors, etc. - all of it for free! I signed up but I just couldn’t believe it.


What does it mean to be “first-generation?”

Well, legally it is defined as neither parent of the student holds a four-year degree. I think it is more than that. I feel like the term “first-generation” has become more empowering to me since now I think of it as breaking barriers. When I entered college, both my parents were factory workers who had to work hard to provide for me, and I know at some point in their life they both wanted to go to college but there were barriers, mostly surrounded by issues of access. So that’s what I think of when I think of first-generation… the barrier breakers.


What was your TRIO experience like? (i.e., did you receive tutoring, did you have a job, what did you do in your jobs, what was the FYE class like that you had to participate in, were there requirements you had to abide by each semester?etc)

I participated in almost everything the program had to offer. Other than orientation, I attended the four-day Fall Welcome program which TRIO reimbursed me for. I got to get a little more familiar with campus and the group that I was with were all TRIO students and later, I discovered that those students were going to be my FYE 2100 class. I made a lot of friends and felt very welcomed to the program and Western as a whole. TRIO Student Success Program (SSP) students now are required to take TRIO FYE 2100 and UNIV 1030 “How to Market Yourself”. I took both of those, but at the time UNIV 1030 was not required. The great thing about the TRIO version of those classes is you get paired with mentors. That mentor program really inspired me so much in my second year that I applied to be a Program Mentor and I got the job!

What a fantastic experience! I learned so much about communication, teamwork, event planning, and students in general. The program has students from such diverse backgrounds and it was such a wonderful experience. I always say not only did I mentor students, but they mentored me. I felt a responsibility to succeed not only for myself but for the students whom I mentored. I held that position for the rest of my undergraduate years, a long with an Office Aid position through the TRIO office. By my third year, I wanted to try teaching by taking on a co-facilitator position for the one of the TRIO FYE 2100 classes. In that position I assisted an instructor in facilitating the class and also some grading. While I enjoyed that experience, I noticed early on that I preferred the one-on-one and small group meetings.

During all of this time, I was also directed to resources such as campus events, campus resources, and others as needed. I think that's one of the best things about the TRIO program. If you have a question, they are going to help you find the answer and I feel that is really important for any college student, but especially first-generation college students. This goes along with their requirement of meeting with an adviser twice a semester as a means to check-in, see how each student is doing academically, personally, and financially. The advisers set goals with the students and come up with action plans. It was nice to have someone acknowledge my progress and push me to reach my goals.

With all of these positions I got to make some great connections, mentors, and friends. After I graduated and was accepted into graduate school, Dr. Giscombe offered me a graduate assistantship position. While in that position I had four main duties: advising, developing and facilitating workshops, evaluating the program through the use of CAS standards, and teaching UNIV 1030. I even got to represent our program in Washington D.C. and present at multiple conferences for free! It was interesting going from being a student to the other side of the seat. I was lucky enough to do that for two years and I loved every minute of it. I think those times really solidified that student affairs was something that I wanted to do for life.


The TRIO Student Success Program: Amber Gill


What are the benefits of being a part of the TRIO Student Success Program?

I think each program has some minor differences in benefits. A common benefit you get from TRIO are the advisers. They are so wonderful in understanding how institutions and higher education work. It is nice to have someone to help navigate through the complicated aspects of college. This can be anything from needed help filling out FAFSA documents to handling issues with roommates. They really are advocates. In the program that I was in, we had a wonderful mentoring program, a work center with free printing and snacks, priority registration, scholarship opportunities, volunteer opportunities, conference opportunities, and fun events. I always use to say “we are TRIO and we are everywhere” since so many of our students held leadership positions on campus, so networking was also a huge benefit for me.


How has being a part of TRIO changed and/or motivated you in your academic and career goals?

Everything, it has changed everything for me. I remember I was tutoring my friend in high school and she told me that in my life, I was going to do something in education. I told her that it was never going to happen. Now, here I am with a M.A. in Higher Education and Student Affairs from the College of Education. All of that stemmed from my work in TRIO, specifically my mentoring experience. I love working with college students and I would have never had that experience if I hadn’t been in TRIO. The staff members are so amazing. I mean, at multiple points in my undergraduate and graduate career, I struggled not only academically but also personally and they just really pushed me to succeed. So many times I felt like I couldn’t finish my degrees and there they were telling me that it was possible. They saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself and without that experience, I know I wouldn’t have completed college.


What skills did you gain from the TRIO Student Success Program?

I feel that I could probably fill a page-full of skills, but I think some of the most used and improved upon would be advising, teamwork, critical thinking, communication, and event planning. To be honest, a majority of what has prepared me for my career has come from TRIO.


What are some of the challenges that TRIO students have to go through in getting a college education and how does the program help with those challenges?

One of the most common problems students have is finding the funds to attend or continue college. Not only are many students eligible for scholarships provided by the program itself, but the adviser has a working knowledge of financial aid and how to find grants and scholarships. I think that comes with a majority of TRIO students feeling unfamiliar with resources available to them, especially in the first year. I think another issue that we see and it is often addressed in research is the imposter complex. That basically means that you don't feel like you belong or are good enough to an institution or academic program. I think talking with the advisers usually helps in that case. It helps to know that those feelings are normal and can be addressed professionally, if needed. I actually felt that way throughout my graduate school experience. TRIO also serves a percentage of students with various disabilities and since TRIO programs usually have a working relationship with many departments on campus they can do a great job of seeing needs being taken care of. 


What advice would you like to share to prospective college students about the TRIO program?

If you are looking into a TRIO program, first see if you are eligible. There are many online resources and the program staff would be glad to answer your questions. Also, not every school has a TRIO program, so if that is a major deciding factor for you, then do some research and see if the school you are looking into has a TRIO program and how long that program has been there. For those who are not in their undergraduate studies currently, please look into many other TRIO programs. They have TRIO programs out there serving high school students and even those who are looking to go to graduate school. Don't be afraid to ask questions!


The TRIO Student Success Program: Amber Gill


Do you have a favorite TRIO memory that you’d like to tell?

I remember at one point in my first year, due to health reasons, I was planning to drop out and I sat down in Rich’s office and bawled my eyes out preparing to leave the university. He told me I had options; that I didn’t need to drop out. He told me I could postpone my exams and take a kind of medical leave. It was the first time that someone had given me options, the first time in the whole ordeal that it didn't feel hopeless. Obviously, I didn't walk out of Rich's office with my medical problems cured, but I did walk out empowered, and in that moment I think I started to heal as a person. That experience is what urged me to go on to become a mentor, so I consider that moment to be what changed everything for me.


How has your experiences with TRIO helped you in your career?

I feel like my TRIO experience has helped me in two major ways. The first would definitely have to be the experiences I had. Through my five years of various jobs in TRIO, not only did I find what I wanted to do but also the skills to help me. Teaching, presenting, problem solving, event planning, teamwork, advising, etc all helped me in my career. The best part of all of this was I felt like I was working in a safe and supportive environment. If I made a mistake, it was a learning experience and I grew as a person from them.

The other way TRIO helped me in my career was the support that they offered. So many times I felt like I couldn't finish, whether it was a class, program, event, or even graduate school and they really pushed me. I think that comes from the fact that the advisers really make an effort to know their students. When you see a student at least twice a semester (most students see their TRIO adviser more frequently), you really start to gain a connection. I still have that bond with the staff from the TRIO program. They know me, they know what I can do, and they help me to reach my goals. In my experience it is very difficult to find that kind of support and I don't feel that I would have made it this far without that support.


What is up next for you? (i.e., what are your currently doing or working on for the future?)

I'm currently looking forward to starting my career in student affairs where ever that may take me. I know I have some wonderful experiences and a group of people that support me. Recently, I got to walk across the stage for graduation and show my little brother that graduating is possible, which is something that I didn't get to see when I was young like him. Overall, I do not know what the future hold as far as where I am going to work or what department I will be working for, but I do know I have the skills, experience, and support needed for whatever comes and even some people looking up to me. So whatever is next, I am up for the challenges and adventures that await.


Amber Gill and brother at graduation



If you'd like to contact Amber about the TRIO Student Success Program, please email her at amber.e.gill[at]



Anastasia R.D. Lopez, M.A. recently graduated with her Masters degree in Educational Leadership in Higher Education and Student Affairs degree from Western Michigan University. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Robert Morris University. Her experience in higher education and student affairs ranges from Career Services, Academic Advising, working with first generation students, students with disabilities, international students, transfer students, undergraduate/graduate students, and study abroad and international education at both public and private universities. She also has related experience in business as well as hospitality and tourism management. Stasia is a Global Education Editor with Wandering Educators and lives with her husband, Fernando, in Michigan.


All photos courtesy and copyright Amber Gill