Syrena Webb knows first-hand that first-generation college students will succeed with the proper support because she herself is a shining example of dedication and hard work lifted up and guided by caring mentors. As Schoolcraft College’s on-site Campus Coach for Detroit Promise, she provides resources, guidance and assistance with achieving goals, and eliminating barriers for Detroit high school graduates.

In brief, the Detroit Promise is a two-year scholarship program for students who have graduated from and attended a Detroit high school during their last two years of high school that helps them attend an area community college tuition-free. Schoolcraft College in Livonia, which offers more than 130 academic programs, is among the schools that students can select.

“When we think about getting students to college, we have to consider its barriers and how they vary based on the student,” Syrena said. “Getting students within underrepresented communities to college is a challenge within itself, as some students are first-generation college students while others face challenges with affording college. Then we must take into consideration the steps that are to be taken to get these students through college.

“The Detroit Promise addresses all of these factors that plays into the overall student success. We understand that our students face many obstacles that requires intensive coaching and support to ensure they succeed.”

Support for students

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The Campus Coach is a key factor in overall student success. Having a Campus Coach like Syrena who can relate to the students on a personal level because she’s experienced similar circumstances is especially important.

“I am from Muskegon Heights, and I grew up in a predominantly Black community, with little to no resources available,” Syrena said. “My mother was a single mother, and she worked to take care of my younger brother and me. While in high school, during every summer, starting at the age of 15, I would work at Muskegon Community College.

“Once I graduated high school, I was accepted into Western Michigan University and placed into a first-year experience program, the Alpha Program, where I met other students who looked just like me. After my first year of being in this program, I decided I wanted to work with first-year and transfer students at Western Michigan University. So that became my part-time job for the next three years. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University during the fall of 2017.”

While her mother instilled in Syrena and her brother the belief they would go to college, it wasn’t always easy to navigate all the challenges on the way to that goal.

“The first time I completed a FAFSA application, I was sitting alone in the computer lab at my high school texting my mother with questions about her income to complete the form!,” she said. “And so these are some of the similar obstacles that our students face, and the scholarship program is meant to address those very same obstacles and get our students to and through college.”

Finding the way forward

Having the resources to help smooth that road is something Syrena knows well.

“During high school I had the perfect GPA, but my SAT and ACT scores were fairly low,” she said. “When I was accepted into Western Michigan University in 2013, I was placed in a first-year experience program called the Alpha Program, where students who had a similar background as I did were provided mentorship and support throughout their first year, which I am thankful for to this day.”

That mentorship was particularly valuable.

“Throughout my college experience, I met so many individuals that became mentors who helped guide me into what is now my career within higher education,” Syrena added. “But these specific mentors were people who looked like me, and they understood where I came from! Going off to college and out of the care of my mother, and into the care of those educators within the Alpha Program at Western Michigan University helped change my life.

“I was a C-B grade student, but I wanted to know the college experience outside of class. So I was always joining an organization, volunteering, and taking on part-time jobs on and off campus, taking on internships, and attending college events. Personally I had a positive college experience not because of what was happening in the classroom, but because of what was taking place outside of the classroom.”

Making college a goal early on

Overall, Syrena believes the idea of attending college needs to be planted early as something that all students can aspire toward. Hand in hand with that is support for parents and others to help them along the way as well.

“As my career within higher education continues to mature, I have realized over time that getting students to college doesn’t start their junior or senior year of high school,” she said. “College, specifically within the underrepresented communities, is an opportunity that should be presented to students at a very young age. Students need to be told that college is possible and that they are worthy.

“In addition, I’d like to see initiatives being taken to include those parents/guardians of the very same students that colleges are trying to recruit. Educating the communities on FAFSA and providing financial literacy, including them within those initial steps to get the students to college, and even offering those hands-on experiences I believe will make a huge difference within the college-going experience.

“We have to understand that students are coming from somewhere, and we can’t just expect for them to pop up on the first day of the college semester and know what they’re doing.”

Since the COVID pandemic began in 2020, all college students around the world struggled to adjust. Recognizing the need to provide even more support, Schoolcraft College’s Learning Support Services department has stepped up.

“Our students face many challenges outside of the classroom and having that team within the LSS department to provide those additional resources for the students readily available, has been extremely helpful,” Syrena said. “Relationship-building is crucial, and Schoolcraft provides that opportunity by offering students to join student organizations like the S.T.A.R.S. DEI Leadership Program.*”

Looking ahead

Much work remains, but with dedicated mentors and advocates like Syrena on the front lines, progress is being made.

“I would like for students and parents of all ages to look into college access programs like the Detroit Promise,” she said. “The college experience is more than what you’re learning inside of the classroom, but it’s what goes on outside of the classroom. For anyone reading this passage who has young children from underrepresented communities, you are worthy of college! You may have more work to do than others, but that just means a bigger payoff.

“If you are interested in joining the Detroit Promise please visit our website to learn more about eligibility and how to apply The Detroit Promise Path | Detroit Promise. I can also be found on Linkedin www.linkedin.com/in/syrenawebb should you have any general questions or concerns.”

*Scholars Taking off Academically & Rising to Success (S.T.A.R.S.) Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) Leadership Program is an opportunity at Schoolcraft College that offers unique experiences to develop students as scholars and leaders. This program also prepares students as professionals entering into a global and diverse workplace.

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