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Helping Graduate Students SOAR

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“I need to do this … I picture myself doing this,” says Rocio Prado.

The Cal State Fullerton graduate student majoring in social work takes pride in all that she has accomplished. An older re-entry student, she once dropped out of high school because of a learning disability. But she has a dream.

Someday, she wants — no, will — work with a nongovernmental organization or federal agency working with refugees and victims of sexual trafficking. 

Prado returned to the classroom in her 30s, earning her high school equivalency, her AA degree and an undergraduate degree — B.S. human services cum laude in 2017 — before taking the big step of entering graduate school.

“Going through all that taught me that I have grit,” she says now. “It hasn’t been easy — I still struggle a lot, but I’m determined to make it. I am going to  make it happen.”

Cal State Fullerton’s SOAR (Strengthening Opportunities, Access and Resources) Program was created in 2014 for students just like Prado: first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students who are working to complete graduate programs.

Funded by a five-year, nearly $3 million U.S. Department of Education grant, the program underwrites advising, academic resources, professional development and networking opportunities — made available to all graduate students — and for those who meet the SOAR criteria, $2,000 annual Elevar Scholarships.

One of the key components is that it offers an online learning community for facilitated peer mentoring and networking, explains Katherine Powers, chair and associate professor of music who has directed the program since its inception. “We focus on developing connections that will help these students through their master’s programs, as well as support additional programs to help them do well.”

One of the services that has most meaning for Prado is the meetings held throughout the school year where Elevar Scholars learn tips and strategies on how to succeed, as well as hear guest speakers who share their school and career experiences. It’s an opportunity to network and to learn from others who have similar backgrounds and experiences.

“The speakers have the most amazing stories,” says Prado. “If you have a goal and if you keep working toward it, you can make it happen.”

In addition to supporting student academic achievement and improving student educational engagement, the SOAR program also works on strengthening the university environment for graduate studies via connections between curriculum and careers, program development and faculty development programs to strengthen student experiences as teaching and graduate assistants.