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MSU student services break down barriers, support students in overcoming graduation obstacles

April 27, 2023
<p>The Michigan State Spartan logo on a building, photographed Aug. 31, 2020.</p>

The Michigan State Spartan logo on a building, photographed Aug. 31, 2020.

Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

The journey toward graduation can be daunting, particularly for students who face significant financial, academic and social obstacles. 

However, at Michigan State University, a transformative network of student services aims to give every student the necessary tools to succeed. From individualized support and advising to financial aid assistance, MSU’s pathway programs are breaking down barriers and propelling students toward graduation and beyond. 

Many of MSU’s support services administer aid to students from diverse backgrounds, ranging from those who are first-generation college students and income-challenged to those with a disability or who grew up in foster care.

Spartan FLI

The Spartan First-Generation Leadership and Innovation Program, or Spartan FLI, is a pathway program designed to assist first-generation and income-challenged college students with personalized coaching, whether academic or financial.

First-Generation Student Success Coordinator Marlene Villa said the program focuses on its students being able to participate in high-impact practices, such as study abroad, undergraduate research, internships and other opportunities that enrich their on-campus experience by providing personal funding. 

“We are able to talk with the student and see what kind of funding they need to access those opportunities,” Villa said. 

Although FLI is in its first year of establishment, Villa said the program is already collaborating with several entities across the university to inform its students about such opportunities. So far, FLI has worked with education abroad, career services, undergraduate research and the Honors College.

“We are collaborating with different departments and offices around the campus so students can learn about those resources and the opportunities that they can take advantage of while here,” Villa said. 

For first-generation students needing help navigating the landscape of a state university with over 50,000 students, Villa said the whirlwind of academic advisors, professors and departments at MSU can be intimidating.The lack of a central support system is one of the biggest challenges first-generation students face, she said and FLI aims to provide that support.

TRIO Student Support Services

Like FLI, TRIO Student Support Services is an opportunity program that motivates and supports first-generation and income-challenged students. According to its website, TRIO provides academic tutoring, mentoring, financial guidance and other support necessary for success. 

For a student to qualify for TRIO, neither parent can have graduated from a four-year university or college. Students are also eligible if they meet the income requirement or have a documented disability. 

Senior TRIO Academic Advisor Felicia McAllister told The State News in February that TRIO services help students with their Free Application for Federal Student Aid and build relationships with financial aid advisors to secure a “warm handoff” in collaboration. 

“We help students (with) knowing what questions to ask because oftentimes, they just don’t know what to ask,” McAllister said. 

For graduation, McAllister said persistence and time management are essential. She said TRIO students occasionally need assistance in regard to applying for graduation and checking credit requirements.

“We’ll meet with them, explain to them the process, take them to the (commencement) website if they’re not sure how to find or where to find those things,” McAllister said. “We also refer students back to their major advisors to ensure everything is complete.”

McAllister said financial barriers and under-preparedness for some students are the primary complexities that exist with first-generation students, along with self-doubt despite achievements or credentials. 

“Once they’ve made it (t0) college, oftentimes, they can hardly believe that they actually did it,” McAllister said of first-generation students. “There’s getting over that whole imposter syndrome as well and feeling like they actually belong.”


Fostering Academics, Mentoring Excellence, or FAME, is a resource center for students that have spent time in foster care, experienced homelessness or identify as independent. 

Run through MSU’s School of Social Work, FAME offers coaching, mentorship and additional services such as “finals week survival kits” and “monthly life skills training.”

FAME Program Coordinator Chiquita Whittington said FAME connects students with what it calls “campus champions,” which are partners in various offices around campus. For example, Whittington said she often turns students over to FAME’s campus champion in the financial aid office. 

Whittington said she prioritizes helping students navigate the college lifestyle so they don’t “fall through the cracks.”

“Our goal is to help the students throughout their semesters to reduce any barriers that might be slowing them down from graduation,” Whittington said. 

Dow STEM Scholars 

The Dow STEM Scholars Program, another pathway program at MSU, provides academic and social support services to students pursuing a science, technology, engineering or mathematics major. To qualify, students must be placed into Intermediate College Algebra & Trigonometry, or MTH 103A, on the MSU Math Placement Exam.

Dow STEM Assistant Director Jonglim Han said students usually stay with the program until they graduate, with a majority of them focused on strengthening their STEM skills. The program offers students tutoring services and special summer classes, but Han said the main objective is to create a tight-knit STEM community and “make this university just a little bit smaller.”

“Many times, regardless of your identities and where you are, (MSU) could be where you can get lost,” Han said. “In the Dow program, we say we’re a family.”


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