CONWAY – The University of Central Arkansas was awarded a $1.6 million grant through the Strengthening Institutions Program with the U.S. Department of Education to support a new initiative for first-time, low-income students during their first year.
The new program, titled Bear Life, is a five-year program that aims to decrease the achievement gap in retention and persistence rates for low-income students, improve their academic performance and increase their sense of belonging. Low-income, or Pell grant-eligible, students comprise more than 40% of UCA’s student population annually.
Nadia Eslinger has been selected as the Bear Life program director. Eslinger previously served for five years as the associate director of the UCA Office of Student Success. She began this new role in January.
“This program will provide an opportunity for UCA students to receive essential guidance that will positively impact their college career. Many students have the grit and determination to succeed at UCA, but this program will give them the agency they need to help them actualize their dreams of becoming college graduates,” Eslinger said.
To receive the grant award, UCA submitted a 50-page proposal that detailed retention and success rates for low-income undergraduates, addressed strengths and areas for improvement in their support of these students and provided a detailed outline and timeline for services to address these areas and improve outcomes. The grant also supports a counselor and administrative specialist, as well as a part-time graduate assistant and three undergraduate guides. It will operate as part of the UCA Office of Student Success.
“Services will include advising and counseling on the admissions process, enrollment and registration, academic progress, financial literacy and major and career exploration,” said Director of Student Success Julia Winden Fey. “The program will also provide support for family involvement in summer orientation and academic registration (SOAR) at UCA and training for faculty and staff on equity literacy.”
Undergraduate guides will give students an enrollment checklist during their senior year of high school and help them with the transition to college through a pre-advising session for SOAR and success coaching. Similarly, the counselor and graduate assistant will offer coaching appointments at pivotal moments during the student’s freshman year. Students can also receive support through an online community.
Additionally, the Bear Life initiative will provide funding for 50 low-income students to participate in the summer bridge program at UCA.
For career exploration, the program will provide all participants with one-on-one career counseling sessions, notices of internship and job-shadowing opportunities with the Office of Cooperative Education and a workshop series. Each year, the program will also fund 20 micro-internships for students entering their sophomore year and whose interests align with in-demand industry sectors as defined in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014.
The program will also conduct a workshop series on financial wellness. Students will learn about interest on student loans, managing a bank account, budgeting and campus resources like emergency grants and loans and the food pantry.
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