A new leader for TRIO students

Althea Counts, the new director of the university’s TRIO programs, remembers her days navigating the University of South Carolina campus as a first-generation college student, hitting a few rough patches along the way.

She attributes much of her success as a student to mentors she found in University Housing, who encouraged her to get involved and led her to become a residence hall adviser. That extra encouragement is what she believes the TRIO programs offer students who attend Carolina today from similar economic backgrounds.

“I hope our program is that connection for them,” says Counts, who earned her undergraduate degree in economics and a master’s degree in student personnel services. “We show them that you have people who believe in you here, and we also help to create some opportunities for them to be leaders. And we encourage them, as well.”

TRIO programs around the country offer low-income and first-generation college students the personal attention, planning and information to manage their financial constraints, strengthen their academic skills, adjust to the campus environment and set goals that lead to graduation and responsible participation in society. The federal TRIO programs were created in 1965 to help low-income Americans enter and graduate from college. It has evolved into a network of programs and services that support students in middle school, high school and college undergraduate programs. Carolina has sponsored TRIO programs for the past 50 years.

Counts has worked for TRIO since 2002, first as the coordinator for the Opportunity Scholars program and later becoming the office’s associate director. She takes over this fall as the new director of the university’s TRIO programs, succeeding Paul Beasley, who retired after leading the office for 29 years.

Now, she will be in charge of the office that oversees Carolina’s four different TRIO components: Upward Bound, an intensive pre-college program for TRIO-eligible students attending high school in Richland County; the Educational Talent Search, which works with middle and high school students in Richland County to help prepare them for college; the Opportunity Scholars, which helps students through tutoring assistance, academic advising, mentoring and workshops; and the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program to help TRIO-eligible undergraduates prepare for and pursue graduate degrees.

It’s important work in a state like South Carolina, where a large percentage of students come from homes where their parents did not attend college.

“If we look at the future of students who will be attending school at the University of South Carolina, more of them will be first-generation, low-income students. Our programs will provide the kind of support and transition services that will help students not only enroll here, but graduate from the university,” she says. “That’s always our goal — retention and graduation.”

Of the 138 Opportunity Scholars who started in the program in fall 2013, 77 graduated in May after four years. Many others are on track to graduate this year.

"For the first-generation, low-income student, we look at making the playing field level. But those students have been excelling, and that’s great for us,” she says. “I think the students are really appreciative of any assistance, direction and guidance you can give them. It has been the most gratifying job I’ve had.”

Counts is only the third director of the university’s TRIO program and the first woman to hold the post. She also was a 2016 recipient of the Ada B. Thomas Outstanding Advisor Award  and the academic adviser award winner for the Association of African-American Students.

“Once you start working for TRIO, it becomes your life’s mission,” she says. “It’s been fulfilling for me to see 18-year-olds come in, get involved on campus, graduate with good GPAs and go on to be productive citizens with good, productive lives.”

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about