TRIO assistant director Pinckney Epps and OSP scholars smile for the camera

First gen lifeline

Gift from The Leon Levine Foundation boosts Opportunity Scholars Program

First-generation students from low-income families who arrive at the University of South Carolina find a home and support through the Opportunity Scholars Program, where a combination of smaller classes, mentoring, advising and workshops improves students’ academic performance and graduation rates.

The OSP will be able to help more students this fall, thanks to a $100,000 grant from The Leon Levine Foundation, an organization started by the founder and chairman emeritus of Family Dollar stores that invests in nonprofits in the Carolinas in the areas of education, health care, human services and Jewish values.

The funding will help support an additional academic advisor and will increase the number of students, program activities and OSP-specific sections of courses. The OSP provides personal attention, planning and resources to help students 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 OSP has been successfully operating as part of the federally funded TRIO programs for decades.

“What stood out to us is that the Opportunity Scholars Program serves a number of students and changes the trajectory of their graduation path. However, due to limited funding, the program isn’t able to help all the students attending UofSC every year who would benefit from the added assistance,” says Justin Steinschriber, the foundation’s director of operations and senior program officer. “We wanted to take something that’s working and ensure more students had access to the program.”

While Gamecock Guarantee scholarships and other financial aid packages help first-generation students attend the university, the Opportunity Scholars Program provides ongoing “wrap-around services,” including mentoring, advising and activities for students in the cohort.

Getting students here, helping them with the transition and completing college with a degree — that’s our ultimate goal.

Althea Counts

“First-generation college students statistically are much less likely to graduate within six years. We’ve researched what can cause this unfortunate reality and what needs to be in place to create a different narrative,” Steinschriber says. “There are certain ‘wrap around’ support services, especially when combined together, that create an opportunity for success for students.

“When the necessary resources are provided and it’s done well, universities are able to change retention and graduation rates. UofSC has demonstrated the ability to make a tremendous impact through this program.”

The TRIO office is supported by federal money, but the OSP has received private funding.

“It aligns with the university’s mission to expand affordability and access. This grant will provide more of the support that helps our first-generation and underrepresented students to be successful,” says Jennifer McCormack, executive director of corporate and foundation philanthropy in the university’s development office.

The Opportunity Scholars Program is funded to serve about 130 incoming students per year, while the foundation’s grant will allow the OSP to serve at least 26 additional students each year.

 “Getting students here, helping them with the transition and completing college with a degree — that’s our ultimate goal,” says Althea Counts, director of TRIO programs, which includes the OSP.

Counts says the funding will help address priorities from the university’s strategic plan — to improve academic outcomes for students from underrepresented, low-income and other marginalized groups, and to align student population with the diversity of the state.

 “All of our students are South Carolina residents, so we can see the impact on our state. This is about changing lives, changing that family tree,” Counts says. “Now, when you have someone in a family who has completed a degree, that student can teach others. We tell these students it’s your responsibility to reach back and help others in your family.”

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