CSUF News Service

Boosting the Dreams of Graduate Students

New Program Offers Support and Skills to Underrepresented Students


UpGRADS Builds on Earlier Programs’ Success

Project UpGRADS, the new Cal State Fullerton effort to support first-generation, under-represented students succeed at the graduate level, is following on the heels of two earlier successful programs: EPOCHS and SOAR.

Enhancing Postbaccalaureate Opportunities at Cal State Fullerton for Hispanic Students began in 2010 and offered Hispanic and other disadvantaged graduate students such support as orientation in Spanish, a bilingual newsletter, tutoring and academic skills workshops, mentors, graduate success consultants and grants to support graduate student research.

The success of the program was recognized in 2016 by “Examples of Excelencia,” a national initiative to system-atically identify and promote evidence-based programs and departments that effectively boost Latino enrollment, performance and education. 

SOAR, or Strengthening Opportunities, Access and Resources, was instituted in 2014 and added an online learning community, academic resources, professional development and networking opportunities, and financial support by way of scholarships.

As a result of the two programs, Hispanic graduate student enrollment at Cal State Fullerton has increased by 80 percent, and graduation rates for such students improved to 50 percent for two-year and 70 percent for three-year graduations. 

“We introduced them to a culture promoting postbaccalaureate education,” explains Katherine Powers, who received the grants that support all three programs. “More importantly, we make sure that they feel like they belong and that they can succeed." 

“We start with graduate student orientation — begun with EPOCHS — and get students connected,” said upGRADS Director Luis Molina, who was a first-generation student himself. “And now we’re collaborating with other campus offices to let underrepresented under-graduates know if they want it, graduate school is possible … that programs like upGRADS can truly benefit their education.”

Long a leader in helping first-generation, underrepresented undergraduates thrive and succeed, Cal State Fullerton begins a new program this fall to offer that same type of support and guidance to graduate students: Project upGRADS, or Utilizing and Promoting Graduate Resources and Access for Disadvantaged Students.

The new program continues and expands the university’s efforts to target Hispanic graduate students to support and assist them in graduating. The program is underwritten by a new five-year U.S. Department of Education grant expected to total nearly $3 million. First-year funding of $598,675 is kicking off the effort.

“Project upGRADS will address the continuing disparities in academic achievement — enrollment, retention and graduation — compared with the general population,” said Katherine Powers, director of the School of Music and grant recipient. “We also will seek to increase engagement among Hispanic graduate students, a key component to their academic success.”

Cal State Fullerton serves almost 40,000 students with 41 percent identifying Hispanic. Of the 4,593 graduate students on campus, 28 percent identify as Hispanic.

To increase enrollment of Hispanic graduate students, Project upGRADS will be developing:

  • A summer graduate studies readiness certificate program that teaches not only academics but soft skills;
  • Proactive advising for applicants and new graduate students;
  • Workshops on financial literacy, professional development and career goals; and
  • Enhanced adviser training.

To improve retention and graduation rates, it is preparing to support peer support groups, and offer expanded online resources.

And to develop educational engagement, upGRADS will establish expanded Career Center services for grad students, as well as a fellowship program that will award 48 $1,000 scholarships annually and include faculty mentoring and research or professional development opportunities. The first fellowships will be awarded in December.

“We’re looking at what has helped underrepresented (undergraduate) students succeed on campus and utilizing it for our graduate population,” explains Powers. “We’re reaching across university divisions and connecting faculty members — all serving and working together in support of student success.”

Project upGRADS Director Luis Molina agrees. The 2015 MBA alumnus achieved his degree with the support of an earlier university program, EPOCHS (Enhancing Postbaccalaureate Opportunities at Cal State Fullerton for Hispanic Students). He was in his second year of graduate school when he fell into academic probation. He discovered the Office of Graduate Studies and met with the then project manager of EPOCHS.

“It was that relationship with someone who looked like me and talked like me,” that helped Molina regain focus on his academic studies and take advantage of the services the program offered. “It meant a lot. The probation really was a blessing in disguise.”

Molina returned to campus a year later as advisement manager for SOAR (Strengthening Opportunities, Access and Resources) and stayed.

“I think these programs are very much needed. They target students who struggle with not knowing what they can do, where they can turn to for guidance and assistance,” he stressed. “Sometimes it’s cultural. We’re taught to be strong and to persevere, to manage the challenges. 

“With SOAR and now upGRADS, we let them know that we have firsthand knowledge of what they are going through,” he added. “We don’t shelter these students, but lead them to where they can go to get the help that they need.”

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