One of the university’s signature student support programs celebrated a milestone in 2022-23: its 25th anniversary. TRIO SSS–formerly known as Expanding Horizons–has been helping students persist and graduate since 1997, serving more than 1,000 students over six grant cycles.
Dr. Beth Swartz was named director of TRIO SSS at Fitchburg State in 2020, capping more than a decade of service to the office. Swartz said her own experiences in college motivate her to help the next generation navigate their paths.
“I literally did not know what I was doing,” she recalled of her own start as a low-income undergraduate student with a disability, who would have qualified for and benefited from the advising model that is at heart of TRIO SSS. Swartz’s educational journey continued, and earlier this year she completed her PhD in higher education for changing populations.
Swartz said she is candid with her own advisees about the path she took. “They’re always surprised to learn my journey was not in a straight line,” she said. “
TRIO SSS serves 160 undergraduate students every year who qualify as low-income, first-generation and/or have a disability. The program offers proactive advising and individualized support plans, and cultivates a sense of belonging for participants, Swartz said. In 2022, Fitchburg State received its sixth federal grant to continue the program.
Swartz said the program’s success is centered on its individualized attention. “We do not advise by the major, we advise by the student,” she said. In reviewing academic performance, she explained, students may be advised to reconsider their stated paths to move toward programs where they’ve demonstrated strength.
Another factor is the intensity and frequency of interaction with students. “We get to have more frequent and deeper conversations with our students,” Swartz said. “We get to know these students in a way their faculty advisors may not get to.”
Below, some of the students whose lives have been changed by TRIO SSS describe their experiences.
Elizabeth Scott ‘23 first checked out Fitchburg State when she learned about its police program from her school resource officer on Cape Cod. A tour guide mentioned the TRIO SSS program and Scott realized she may qualify. It was a great decision, she said.
“TRIO has made my college experience much more enjoyable,” Scott said. “My mom didn't finish college so she and I didn't really know what to expect, and with TRIO’s help we were able to navigate everything from moving in to filling out the FAFSA. Not only that but I made friends who understood where I was coming from and also all of the advisors are just so kind and helpful, even with things that pertain to personal issues outside of school. TRIO has made campus a home away from home for me, and I truly don't think I would have made it this far without them.”
Scott graduated in May with a degree in criminal justice and this summer is completing the 17-week academy portion of the police program. In September she will complete her certification to work as a municipal police officer, and her graduate degree will begin.
Scott said TRIO provided important support in the transition from high school to college, along with cultivating skills that she knows will help her beyond her degree, like networking and financial literacy.
Gianna Meninno ‘24 arrived at Fitchburg State with dreams of becoming a nurse, but struggled to make the required grades for admission after the challenges of going to school during COVID. She was soon directed to TRIO. “TRIO has been amazing for me and has made my experience of college so much easier,” she said. “The advisors are what makes it the best. They do everything from helping you pick the right classes for you to getting you on track with your classwork. Plus they are always there to listen to you about any problems or concerns you have.”
Meninno, a Framingham native, explained her ambitions to her advisors, who helped her chart a new course. “Beth Swartz came up with multiple plans of action to make sure I could still be a nurse and do it the way that best fits me,” Meninno said. “By 2025, I will be just that, all because of the advisors at TRIO.”
Ruthny Bonnet ‘21 was connected to TRIO SSS by her high school guidance counselor in Boston, and the program made a major impact on her success in college. “TRIO meant that I wasn’t alone in the process and had someone who would be there if I never needed anything,” Bonnet said. “They also held me accountable for my goals that I wanted to achieve.”
My time at TRIO SSS helped me achieve where I am today, because they taught me that if I put my mind to something I can achieve it, no matter what.
Those goals now include pursuing a master’s degree in criminal justice with a concentration in public service. Bonnet was also recently hired as a victim’s advocate for the major felony bureau of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. “TRIO helped me get to this position by giving me the dream to explore the criminal justice system beyond the police program,” she said.
Neve Palmieri ‘21 learned about TRIO SSS during an open house. Her family includes several generations of Falcons, so the university was already on her radar. And meeting the TRIO SSS staff cemented her plans.
“TRIO wasn’t just a program to me, they became far more than that,” she said. “They pushed me to be the best person I could be and helped me navigate through all the new experiences that college life brings. I wouldn’t have achieved nearly all that I did throughout my four years at Fitchburg State, if I didn’t have TRIO SSS behind me every step of the way. They were not only there for me when I had highs and acted like my biggest cheerleaders but were there for me at my lows and helped me regain the confidence that I needed.”
Palmieri, who was raised in Uxbridge, now lives and works in Boston as the manager of the city’s first and only trampoline fitness studio, Barre Groove. She first found out about the company when a friend encouraged her to take a fun and unique fitness class.
“I knew from the second I got on the trampoline for the first time that I was meant to be part of this and, boy, I wouldn't change it for anything,” she said. “My time at TRIO SSS helped me achieve where I am today, because they taught me that if I put my mind to something I can achieve it, no matter what. Everything I learned from the program has helped me navigate my life, now being on my own in a big city. If you told my freshman self that I’d be where I am today, I wouldn't believe you.”