UNI-CUE gets a visit from a U.S. senator

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst received a first-hand look last week at how a University of Northern Iowa program is helping low-income Cedar Valley students gain access to and succeed in higher education, while also learning how the program is growing to help more people.

The event Thursday at UNI’s Center for Urban Education (better known as UNI-CUE), which recently signed another 10-year-lease for it’s downtown Waterloo headquarters, brought attention to the broad range of programs on offer.  Ernst met with UNI President Mark A. Nook, UNI-CUE Executive Director Robert Smith, UNI-CUE Assistant Director Megan Holbach, Educational Opportunity Center Assistant Director Nickole Dillard and two UNI students, Brianna Nash and Audrey Dillavou, who have used UNI-CUE’s programs.

“A person comes to our TRIO programs with a dream, and we take that dream and show you how to reach it,” Smith said. “We teach you about the admissions process, the financial aid process, all the tools you need to survive, so when you walk out of here, you’re ready to go to college. All it takes is coming here with a dream.”

University leaders heralded the TRIO programs administered by UNI’s Center for Urban Education as a shining example of how the college is preparing middle and high school students for higher education.

“These programs mean so much for students who otherwise might struggle to access a college education,” Nook said. “We believe every level of education should be attainable for every student who seeks it, and the TRIO program has been carrying out this mission for decades.”

Ernst, a first-generation college student, said the federal government needs to invest in schools to give students an opportunity to succeed.

“Waterloo has this tremendous opportunity to reach out not only to the urban community here, but surrounding counties and encourage folks to get involved and go on to post-secondary education and do better in their lives,” Ernst said. “Learning about this program and why it’s important goes back to the federal government as well and making sure we’re recognizing the needs in these communities and how we can be supportive.”

UNI-CUE has been offering TRIO programs since the late 1980s. Today, the main programs, Educational Talent Search, Educational Opportunity Center and Classic Upward Bound serve more than 3,000 students on average each year, offering services that include tutorial services, academic advising and counseling, career counseling, information on student financial assistance and assistance in completing college admissions and financial aid applications.

In addition to those three federally funded programs, UNI-CUE also offers five other in-house programs serving both UNI and citizens of Black Hawk County, including UNI-CUE Tutoring Center, UNI-CUE Prep Tutoring Program and UNI-CUE Leadership Academy.

The programs are particularly focused on low-income, first-generation students, where access to education is often the biggest challenge.

“Oftentimes, they just don’t have access to the resources they need to go to college,” Dillard said. “So we really kind of work and collaborate to make sure that students aren't falling through the cracks, to make sure that those needs are met and to make sure that they have the resources that they need.”

The TRIO programs are also continuing to grow. Smith is writing new grants to offer TRIO programs to veterans and to bring back a previously offered Upward Bound program that focuses on math and science education.

UNI-CUE also recently received a $87,000 Future Ready Iowa Summer Youth Internship Pilot Program Fund from Iowa Workforce Development, which will serve about 15 high school students with summer job internships.