Senior Tamara Sonera gets a warm feeling every time she approaches the Thagard Building on the campus of Florida State University. She knows she’s about to encounter quiet spots to study, comfortable places to relax and compassionate people to talk to.
“The minute I walk in, I kind of know that I’m home,” she said.
The four-story structure houses FSU’s Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement. Students and staff members refer to it simply as CARE — because to them, that’s what it does. It cares.
But for the students it serves, it does so much more.
“My parents didn’t go to college, so I was stepping out of my comfort zone,” said Sonera, a Puerto Rico native. “CARE provided me that stability.” Now she’s a social work major who aims to, as she puts it, “dismantle educational disparities.”
“CARE embodies so much of what’s great about FSU. CARE is a strong, nurturing community that empowers students to achieve their full potential. The incredible students and the talented faculty and staff who inspire them are a testament to the transformative power of higher education.”
— Joe O’Shea, associate provost and dean of undergraduate studies at FSU
In early November, FSU students and administrators will participate in the nationwide First-Generation College Celebration, an opportunity to educate the campus communities in Tallahassee and Panama City about FSU’s long history of institutional commitment to first-generation student success. CARE will conduct an FGEN Commemorative Celebration at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 8, featuring keynote speakers Winston Scott — an FSU alumnus who served as a U.S. Navy captain, NASA astronaut and FSU’s vice president for student affairs — and Michael Cadore, a civic leader, higher-education administrator and former professional football player.
CARE finds its roots in Horizons Unlimited, a program that FSU launched in 1968 to give students who normally would not qualify to attend a chance to enroll and succeed at FSU. That program started with 25 students has gone on to produce student body presidents, Rhodes Scholars and Fulbright Award recipients, among other academic leaders.
Today, CARE directly supports more than 1,600 students through a growing number of programs and initiatives. It emphasizes recruitment, retention and academic excellence of students who might not otherwise have attended college, many from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in higher education.
“CARE embodies so much of what’s great about FSU,” said Joe O’Shea, associate provost and dean of undergraduate studies at FSU. “CARE is a strong, nurturing community that empowers students to achieve their full potential. The incredible students and the talented faculty and staff who inspire them are a testament to the transformative power of higher education.”
CARE provides tutoring, study rooms and well-being services, plus access to conferences and specialized workshops. It also offers advising on academics, financial aid and financial wellness.
This fall, CARE expanded its footprint through a new invitation-only scholars program, QUEST Scholars, and the FGEN Noles Living-Learning Community, where first-generation students live and study together.
Its reach also extends to preparing high school students through the Upward Bound program, for which CARE recently received $1.4 million in additional funding from the U.S. Department of Education to increase its college-preparation services from two to four North Florida counties.
“Our focus has always been on providing that one-stop center for students to navigate campus,” CARE Director DeOnte Brown said. “Because of our success with first-generation Pell-eligible students, we now are positioned to push further in what we do. We’re always thinking about new ways that we can support students.”
A BRIDGE OF SUPPORT
A CARE student’s journey begins during Summer Bridge, a seven-week program during the summer term when first-year students stay on campus to transition comfortably to the campus environment and learn academic habits essential for their success at FSU. With nearly 400 students enrolled each summer, it has become the largest program of its kind in the country.
“I was able to build my community before I started my first semester,” Sonera recalled of her experience in the program.
It’s an experience that CARE upperclassmen eagerly share with new cohorts.
“I wanted to give back to the CARE community because it has poured so much support on me over these past three years,” Sonera said.
Sonera taught an Engage 100 course as a CARE team leader and introduced incoming students to campus life and university resources as a Summer Bridge Ambassador.
“It allowed me to grow as a student and leader,” she said.
Likewise for Jasen Louis, a senior who’s majoring in recreation and tourism management. He served last summer as a Summer Bridge Ambassador for 17 students and offered tips about class registration, academic resources, financial management, even personal relationships.
“I loved it. I loved my students,” said Louis, president of FSU’s Black Student Union. “And I still see students from other Summer Bridge groups on campus, and I’m seeing them flourish. And it’s great to see.”
Louis said he appreciated the support he has received even outside of CARE’s cornerstone programs. He cited workshops on financial management, which he said helped him manage his financial aid.
“Some of us low-income students haven’t seen that much money in our account, ever,” he said. “The financial-literacy workshop is letting us know, ‘Hey, this is not money for you to go crazy and spend. It’s money for you to be intentional with.’ Those type of workshops help us succeed.”
In addition to Summer Bridge and Upward Bound, CARE programs include:
- Unconquered Scholars, which provides specialized services and a foundation of support and inspiration for students who experienced homelessness, foster care or care from relatives or who have been wards of the state. The program also celebrates achievement – boasting an 85% four-year graduation rate. Only 3% of former foster youth earn a college degree, according to the National Foster Youth Institute.
- QUEST Scholars, a new invitation-only and institutionally funded initiative that aims to give students access to academic, transitional and developmental services so that they can thrive at FSU and prepare themselves for life after graduation, perhaps in a career or in graduate school. QUEST Scholars get their own course sections in Engage 100, a college-transition program unique to FSU that helps first-year students explore their interests and get to know each other and the campus. QUEST Scholars launched this fall with a class of 126 students.
- FGEN Noles Living-Learning Community, another new program that emphasizes diversity, inclusion, academic engagement and campus involvement. The program groups students who live together, participate in activities together and take classes together. Participants can access academic support services, including advising, tutoring and college-life coaching.
- Student Support Services, federally funded programs designed to improve retention, graduation, financial literacy and overall academic success rates by providing academic and engagement activities for qualified students. With funding from the U.S. Department of Education, CARE runs two programs – one for those in STEM-specific majors and one for those in any major – that provide helpful resources to students such as mentoring, tutoring, financial advisement and cultural enrichment activities.
‘A FAMILY IN TALLAHASSEE’
CARE students credit such programs for their academic success. Take it from Stephanie Matos, a Cuban American who is the first in her family to attend college.
Her academic ambitions started early: In high school, she placed nationally in a Future Business Leaders of America competition and won a Hispanic Heritage Foundation Youth Award for entrepreneurship. Through dual enrollment, she earned an associate degree before graduating high school.
She said CARE drew her to FSU, all the way from Miami. She learned about its programs during virtual sessions with CARE students and one-on-one meetings with administrators.
The personal attention eased her concern about moving so far from home, she said.
“I just knew I was going to make it,” Matos said. “I felt like I was going to find a family in Tallahassee, to find a family within CARE.”
A sophomore marketing major, she now works as an administrative assistant in the Thagard Building and serves as the public relations chair for the Hispanic/Latinx Student Union.
“It’s very exciting to be a first-generation college student. I love it,” Matos said. “I love being the first in my family to do many things. It’s a very empowering feeling.”