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Learning for Life helps RIC students succeed

Learning for Life is a program at Rhode Island College that allows students to connect with resources for their needs. The Postsecondary team at the Onward We Learn and Joise Garzon and La Tanya Monteiro from L4L recently talked about the program’s mission, goals, and outcomes.  

What is Learning for Life and its main purpose?  

Learning for Life is an office in a student success division at Rhode Island College and our mission is to connect students on and off campus resources to help them overcome any of the life barriers that get in the way of their education. It may include access to basic needs navigating the campus systems, connecting with folks, or managing competing priorities right and everything in between. The way that we deliver those services is through our peer mentor ship model. We have trained undergrad and graduate-level students. Most of them are from the School of Social Work program but we also have students from all different programs and different helping fields, and they are the ones who deliver individualized support to each student we serve. Our goal is to retain students to help them achieve their level of success, and it means a different thing for different people. 

How was the program L4L formed? Has it changed direction from when it first began?  

In 2012 all the Rhode Island state colleges were given a five-year CAC grant. Rhode Island College decided to create Learning for Life with founding partners the Onward We Learn, College Visions and Goodwill of Rhode Island. It started with the goal to get about 150 students connected with us or maybe even less than that, but it is 1,562 at this point. Those students make about 20% of the RIC population.  

In general, what characteristics define the students who first come into L4L?  

At the beginning, Learning for Life had qualifiers to participate; students had to be Pell eligible, and they had to meet certain criteria, whether it was that they were an adult learner, a primary caretaker, their first language was not English, or a first-gen student. Since 2017, we have transitioned away from that because our persistence numbers were showing that students receiving our services persist at higher rates than the rest of the RIC population. The college took us on as a department and so we are no longer a grant program. Fifty-five percent of the scholars we served this past year were Pell eligible and 63 percent of the students we served identified as either Black, indigenous, or people of color. Thirty-one percent of the scholars we served are adult learners as well, and we’ve been seeing that number increase. There’s more state funding and there’s more of a push from the state to get adult learners to get back into college and finish their degrees. We have an even number of first-year sophomore, junior, and senior students. We also serve graduate-level students, which is different because there really isn’t a place on our campus that is like a go-to just for them besides the graduate students’ office. Our top majors line up with RIC’s top majors, nursing and nursing-intended students. Most of our students come from there as well as from social work, education, psychology, justice studies and then we have some biology, art, studio, accounting, and youth development. 

What specific strategies do you use with students to guide them toward their individual goals?  

It’s all about the relationship and rapport building with students because the students are not going to open up their life to you if they don’t trust you. Initially students come in for all varied reasons and a lot of the time it’s financial. Once you start to build that rapport with the student, all the other factors come into the conversation. They start to realize that you are not trying to push them off. We try to be mindful that adult learners are juggling a lot of things, so if they are facing a barrier, we’re able to help them overcome that or help them connect them to the resources they need. We understand that they might not want to be checking in every week because they don’t have time for that. Our model is very flexible and it’s really up to the students how frequently they want to check in with us. We do follow up frequently with them regardless of whether they are following up with us because our data has shown that they need to know that someone cares about them and that someone is sending them resources. We have had scholars email us saying. “Thank you; sometimes it was annoying but now I need something and I know you’re here for me because you have been there all along.” We are trying to build our resources for child care. We often bring in people from the outside to conduct workshops about building a house, building credit because we understand that everything is academic. We mainly try to connect them with the resources all in one place so that it is one less place they have to go. 

Define the Navigator Model that is used in the program and how does it differ from student to student?  

Our educational support coordinators (ESC) oversee our Navigators. They coordinate project objectives including outreach to students, the development of marketing materials, communications, and collaborative initiatives. Our Navigators have supervision every two weeks to help them learn about the resources as well as helping them to connect to different students. Navigators help in any way to connect students to resources on and off campus. We also guide Navigators toward the way to reach out to different students in case they are not opening up. We talk about our options when a student is not responding and usually target our issues right at the beginning so we make sure that they are building the rapport and starting the connection with their students. Also, we also reach out to the student in case they want to change their Navigator or if there is anything else they need to focus on. It is a web of building trust from the beginning until they are done working with us. 

What are some of the major changes that are seen because of L4L?  

Ashley Davega, Crusade College Success Coach at RIC: Students are often coming in nervous and afraid of this new experience in this new space. The first thing students have told me (prior to COVID) was about walking in and feeling comfortable and safe. You have someone who is sitting at the front desk, and it is a student. You don’t feel so bogged down and afraid as many students do. A lot of my students are going to have me, and they are going to have a Navigator, so once they start connecting with the Navigators and me it really does form a beautiful bridge that helps the students get that all-around help. I can emotionally support a student as much as possible, but the Navigators are studying on how to help them. It strengthens our relationship there with them in the Crusade because I’m still their new advisor going in. We have this triangle support, and our relationship strengthens. I was working with one student trying to help with FAFSA issues and I’m thinking of the amount of comfort she felt with her Navigator being there and how she felt that triangle of like trust, which helped her get through this really tough time. I could understand her from a FASFA point of view since I know how it works, but the Navigator understood her emotional frustrations, her home frustrations. I may even understand all sides of her problem; I was her age and in the same place as her. Students have a feeling of trust and comfort in being able to just say whatever they want. I see students opening up and being able to communicate more, having a better flow and I think that some of the things that we experience as first-generation students and their families, as well sharing information that is personal, is very difficult – whether it be tax information because of FAFSA or just something going on at home that is preventing them from moving forward. We talked about students who are parents, and some of our Navigators can relate to them.  

La Tanya: Working with the College Crusade and our additional partners has helped us send the message to our students that we do not know everything, but we are always going to connect you to people who do. We might not be familiar with all the areas that one student might need help with, but we are able to make those connections that will get students where they need to go. It shows them that it is not a problem to ask for help and that it is OK to have that web of help. Especially for first generation students, it shows them that sometimes it is OK to reach out. Sometimes they think that they are responsible for knowing everything and that is not the case. When our students see that even the professionals are asking for help outside of themselves, it is powerful.  

Joise: One of the main changes that I have seen through the program as most students are coming in with very little social capital and they leave the program having multiple connections in each area. Another change that I have seen through this program is that students often internalize their problems, and they start to think that their issues often come because of something that they are doing wrong when in reality they start to notice that they are working in an unfair system. Students start to see that their environment and their systems also play a part in who they are. Also, they start advocating for themselves, and they gain more independence. As they do that, they also tend encourage other students to have the same behavior.  

What makes L4L stand out from other college programs?  

La Tanya: We hold true to our Navigator Model and its holistic aspect. We always refer to the student; it is very effective and I feel like it makes us stand out. We always evaluate ourselves or have ourselves evaluated. To be put under a microscope is not always comfortable but we know that to do what we do and do it the way we should be doing it evaluation is the only way to go about that.  

Joise: Onward We Learn, College Visions, and Learning for Life operate somewhat in the same way. Students are not empty vessels. They are not coming to us knowing nothing. They have their own cultural wheel and their own knowledge that they are bringing to our work together. That’s the reason why we call them scholars, because we believe that they’re an expert in their own life and in different things, too. We want to take that in and not just see them as their GPA or their status as a first-gen student or any of that. We want to learn from them see them holistically. A big part of what we do is assessment. We assess first and think about what they are already connected to, what are their strengths, what do they have going on, who’s in their support circle and so on. We gather this information first, and then we work with them from there to build their goals. I feel like that differentiates us on our campuses; we spend a lot of time on our assessments and then build bold up from there. 

If you could say anything to a student thinking of joining L4L, what would you say?  

Joise: I would just say you know you do not have to do this alone when you have a whole team of people ready and prepared to help you in whatever that looks like. Whether that means a chat or you have a big barrier you are trying to overcome, “use us” is what I would say.  

LaTonya: I would typically tell students that no one gets anywhere by themselves so why should you get through college on your own. My own child received a Navigator when they were a freshman at RIC so that really tells you a lot about the way I believe in my office as well as how we work.  

Ashley: For our Crusaders I would say that some of them think, “I’m a Crusader so it’s OK, I got this.” It’s a great way to think but I also would want them to know that L4L is a great program and that you can be part of both. It is all about building that connection and that web of social capital to guide you to success.