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Published: May 01, 2015
From left graduating seniors Mindy Huynh, Aryk Bingham-Hill and Shani Bennett were active participants in the Helios Scholars program.
From left graduating seniors Mindy Huynh, Aryk Bingham-Hill and Shani Bennett were active participants in the Helios Scholars program.

After graduating this spring, Shani Bennett ’15 will serve a year with AmeriCorps before going to graduate school. Aryk Bingham-Hill ’15 will be a commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, FL. And Mindy Huynh ’15 is set to begin pharmacy school at the University of South Florida.

These students are just three of several hundred who have taken part in the Helios Scholars program over the last four years, and their success is exactly what the program was designed to ensure. At next week’s May commencement, 115 students in this first cohort will all receive their diplomas.

“The program gave me the resources I needed to be successful at UT,” said Bingham-Hill, an environmental science major from Tampa, who was recently named by the Tampa Chamber of Commerce as the USF ROTC Cadet of the Year.

In June 2011, UT entered into a partnership with the Helios Education Foundation to develop a program focused on improving the academic success and persistence of students considered to be at higher risk of attrition. The foundation provided UT with a four-year, $1.3 million grant to help get the program up and running.

Students are eligible for the program if they are Florida residents, members of minority groups and/or first-generation in college, and choose one of 65 different majors related to science, technology, education or mathematics.

The program is multifaceted, bringing together academic, financial and peer support.

According to Lorie Kittendorf, director of student transition and persistence, perhaps the most successful aspect of the program have been peer mentors, called SPEARs (Spartan Peer Educating About Resources). Each SPEAR is assigned 40 to 50 mentees, divided by college and major. SPEARs send weekly emails about University resources and organize get-togethers with their mentees.

“The peer mentoring program gives students a small group within the larger student body to connect with,” said Kittendorf. “If nothing else, they see the emails and know these resources are available to them.”

Helios Scholars also have access to 89 work-study positions across campus. Through these positions, students not only get a paycheck to offset their academic and living expenses, but gain valuable knowledge and skills necessary to become qualified for future positions.

They also build important connections with faculty and staff. Huynh, a biology major from Tampa, worked in three computer labs on campus and said her supervisor, Jennifer Tanács, computer lab coordinator, was really great to work with.

“I tend to be shy, and she helped me to get out of my comfort zone,” said Huynh.

Bennett, who worked in the Office of Career Services, also cites the work-study aspect of the program as pivotal for her.

“If I hadn’t had the connection with Career Services, I wouldn’t have found out about this opportunity with AmeriCorps,” she said.

The Helios grant has also been used to provide financial support through book vouchers, merit and need-based scholarships, and grants to help keep students at UT their second year or for summer tuition to keep them on track.

As of Fall 2014, the latest time for which the University has data, UT has retained or graduated 77 percent of the overall Helios population. Though the Helios grant expires this year, the University is committed to continuing the program.

“The basic structure will remain intact,” said Kittendorf, explaining that all the initiatives that have proven successful over the last four years will be an established component of the UT budget cycle. Kittendorf does plan to tweak the criteria for inclusion, however. The Florida residency requirement will be dropped, as well as the restriction on majors.

“Our first priority is supporting students currently in the program, and then we’ll see how many additional students we can support with the new university-funded budget,” she said.

Kittendorf explained that when the Helios Education Foundation made this grant, this was one of their first forays into higher education. During a visit with Helios CEO Paul Luna, he told her UT’s philosophy in building this program changed how they give money to higher education institutions.

“We didn’t want to just give the money to the students, we wanted to use it to build connections with them,” said Kittendorf. “Yes, a financial handout helps to offset students’ costs, but building connections is what keeps them here. Now the Helios Foundation looks to see if institutions applying for funding have that component. I felt like that was a stamp of approval on the program we built at UT.”

 --By Kiley Mallard, Writer/Editor

Read more about Hernandez and others in the Spring 2015 Journal.