University of Central Florida Prepares Students for Success Via Access and Opportunity

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Diversity Champions exemplify an unyielding commitment to diversity and inclusion throughout their campus communities, across academic programs, and at the highest administrative levels. INSIGHT Into Diversity selected institutions that rank in the top tier of past Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award recipients. 

A public, multi-campus research university in Orlando, the University of Central Florida (UCF) has one of the largest enrollments of any U.S. university, with nearly 65,000 students. Recognizing the diversity and the varying needs of its student body, the university works to ensure that all students have the opportunity to thrive.

“UCF has long [designated] increasing inclusion and diversity as one of its most visible and important goals,” says Chief Diversity Officer for UCF Karen Morrison. “With over 64,000 students and 11,000 faculty and staff, we have focused on building communication networks, campus and community collaborative partnerships, support services for students, and educational opportunities for our entire community.”

[Above: UCF shows its support for the LGBTQ community with lights representing the Pride flag.]

Undocumented Students
With a focus on the nation’s sizable immigrant population, UCF recently partnered with TheDream.US — the nation’s largest college access and success program for undocumented students — to provide scholarships to highly motivated undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

Called DREAMers, these students are recipients of the DREAM Act, which enables hardworking immigrant children to earn legal status, and even permanent residency, by meeting certain educational criteria and demonstrating good moral character as evidenced by a rigorous criminal background check.

Undocumented college students face many unique challenges; although they are legally able to enroll in college, they are not eligible for federal financial aid, student loans, and most scholarships. Through TheDream.US scholarship, offered for the first time in fall 2016, UCF is filling a critical need for DREAMers.

Cyndia Morales Muñiz

“The scholarship opportunity has changed their lives,” says Cyndia Morales Muñiz, EdD, assistant director of Multicultural Academic and Support Services at UCF. “Before, they had to plan in the short term. Now they can plan their future because they have a mechanism that helps them complete their degree. They don’t have to work long hours to cover the cost of tuition; they can truly focus on being a successful student.”

Scholarships range from $12,500 for an associate degree to $25,000 for a bachelor’s degree. This money also includes a $1,000 annual stipend for books and other educational materials. The funds cannot be used for housing costs, but Muñiz says many of the current UCF DREAMers, of which there are 30, live at home with their parents.

Madelin Flores, a recipient of the scholarship and a first-generation college student, says the award made higher education more of a possibility for her.

“Going to college, no matter what, was a goal I had set for myself, but how was I going to pay for it? Without this scholarship, it would have been very hard to attend college,” she says, adding that had it not been for the award, she would have only been able to afford to take one or two classes per semester.

“I work right now, but I don’t have to make that money in order to continue my education,” she says. “I’m setting a good example for my sister and other [undocumented students] who might be able to get the scholarship. I want them to realize that if you work hard enough, you can accomplish your goals.”

UCF students promote their heritage by displaying a Puerto Rican flag.
UCF students promote their heritage by displaying a Puerto Rican flag.

Latino Success
In a state where Latinos make up nearly half of the population, UCF understands the importance of supporting this growing segment. In addition to TheDream.US scholarships for undocumented students, many of whom are Latino, the Latino Faculty and Staff Association (LaFaSA) at UCF acquired a $30,000 grant from the Hispanic Federation to implement a peer-mentoring program for these students. Through CREAR Futuros, LaFaSA pairs Latino juniors and seniors with Latino freshmen and sophomores.

“Peer mentoring is a high-impact practice [in regard to] student success; students learn a great deal from each other’s experiences,” Muñiz says. “They are very excited about pushing students to live out their full potential and work hard for the betterment of their communities. They’re taking great pride in who they are and what their success means in the Latino community, and they’re instilling that in the other students.”

Furthermore, Muñiz says the university recently reached the minimum undergraduate enrollment of Latino students that is required to become a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution, which is 25 percent. A campus committee is currently looking into the process of applying for the designation, as well as considering ways of expanding programs and services to better serve this demographic.

“Serving is the key word,” Muñiz says. “How do we serve this population of students? How can we be intentional about meeting their needs? There is a lot of training necessary as far as cultural competence and educating everyone on the values and experiences of the Latino community.”

IES students participate in Rally for Respect, an event that previews UCF’s Diversity Week and focuses on discussions about social justice and celebrating diversity.
IES students participate in Rally for Respect, an event that previews UCF’s Diversity Week and focuses on discussions about social justice and celebrating diversity.

Disability Inclusion
Students with intellectual disabilities are also an important part of UCF’s campus community, where a new initiative is helping them develop the competencies necessary to thrive in the workforce and world. Launched in fall 2015, Inclusive Education Services (IES) offers these students a three-year, non-degree academic experience with a vocational focus.

Adam Meyer
Adam Meyer

“They are official, recognized UCF students, and by virtue of that, they have full access to everything on campus, including the more than 500 student clubs and organizations,” says Student Accessibility Services (SAS) and IES Executive Director Adam Meyer. “We want them to have the same desires and goals [as other UCF students], but the path to get there looks different. We feel that the students, by going through this experience and participating in the activities, will be in a place to get a better-paying job than they would have had they not come to UCF.”

IES students during a tutoring session
IES students during a tutoring session

IES participants take two classes per semester — typically freshman- and sophomore-level general education or liberal arts courses — alongside their non-IES peers. While they have the same deadlines and work at a similar pace as their classmates, Meyer says that in most instances, students audit the class and do not earn a grade. Auditing gives IES more flexibility in terms of modifying assignments according to each student’s abilities.

One way UCF helps meet the unique needs of these students is through accessible technology.

“They come to us with low reading grade levels, as low as kindergarten,” Meyer says. “We make available to students … text-to-speech technology. It will read emails or content on a web page. We can also give students their textbook in an electronic format, and it will read to [them] so that they can still gather a lot of information [without] reading. They can hear it and move at a faster pace.”

IES students work in the UCF community garden, a collaborative effort between the student body and the UCF Arboretum.
IES students work in the UCF community garden, a collaborative effort between the student body and the UCF Arboretum.

Although IES students do not earn credit, Meyer says they develop self-confidence and self-advocacy skills. Additionally, UCF plans to create a university-recognized credential for these students within the next 18 months.

“It will probably parallel what you think of as a certificate, but we’re still in discussions regarding what that may look like,” Meyer says. “The students are more capable and are growing in ways that will allow them to be more successful in different opportunities that wouldn’t have been on their radar in the past.”

Because many IES students live on campus, they are learning how to live and get by on their own.

“Being out of the house, having to make their own decisions, find their own friends, and decide what clubs to join opens the opportunity for them to have different experiences from what they may have had in high school,” Meyer says. “[Having] that level of independence away from their parents, having to figure out how to deal with roommate conflicts and disagreements, how to manage time on their own — making sure they’re to class on time — has created a tremendous opportunity for them to grow as individuals. They learn so much by living on campus and being part of the campus community.”

“Parents who never would have entertained the idea of their child having his or her own apartment are now having those conversations,” he adds.

IES is also helping these students develop the work ethic and skills they will need to join the workforce. Meyer says that, currently, at least six students have paid jobs on campus, and two of them, who work in the UCF Student Union, have been promoted. Additionally, one student has a paid job off-campus, and another six students have unpaid on-campus internships.

Furthermore, IES students each receive a $7,000 annual scholarship from the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities, regardless of financial need.

LGBTQ+ Mentorship
In an effort to provide support, encouragement, and guidance as well as role models to LGBTQ+ students, UCF developed the Alliance Mentoring Program (AMP) three years ago in partnership with LGBTQ+ Services and the Pride Faculty and Staff Association, an on-campus LGBTQ+ advocacy group.

Through both on- and off-campus events, such as lunches and community service projects, AMP facilitates “the mentee’s journey toward self-acceptance, empowerment, and comfort, while also contributing to a positive overall experience at UCF,” according to the program’s web page.

LGBTQ+ Services kicks off the fall semester with its Lavender Lunch, where students learn about LGBTQ+ involvement opportunities available on campus and are able to apply to participate in AMP. Following this event, office staff work to create mentor-mentee matches; LGBTQ and ally faculty and staff members are paired with LGBTQ students based on interests, personal goals, and field of study.

Justin Andrade
Justin Andrade

“A big piece of [pairing compatibility] is identity, so we ask mentees how they would like their mentors to identify, and we pair them with mentors who have a deep knowledge of whatever it is they need,” says LGBTQ+ Services Coordinator Justin Andrade. “AMP creates a sense of community on campus [for] an oftentimes invisible community.”

Andrade says many LGBTQ students come to UCF questioning their identities and may be uncomfortable coming out. “Our mentors are able to show [their mentees] their own experience and how they navigated that journey,” he says. “It gives them a sense of security to know there are professionals on campus who understand and value their experience and are there to provide them resources. … AMP makes them feel validated and helps them understand there’s a support system on campus.”

Since its inception, AMP has attracted more students and mentors each year, growing from 20 pairs in the first year to 53 this year. But Andrade says that mentees are not the only ones who benefit from the program.

“For a lot of the mentors, it provides a sense of relief to see so many youth coming out earlier, seeking these support services, and being so in tune with their identities, whereas maybe that wasn’t the case for [the mentors],” Andrade says.

By ensuring that underrepresented and disadvantaged students have the same opportunities to thrive as their peers, UCF demonstrates that regardless of its size, no student is forgotten.●

Lauren Healey is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. The University of Central Florida is a 2012 and 2016 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.