SSS Offers Key to Success to Unprepared Freshmen

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 8, 2015)  Family. Home. Sanctuary.

University of Kentucky students and alumni describe Student Support Services with those words — words that evoke a sense of being safe and secure in a place where your dreams are encouraged and your efforts supported. 

And that’s what Lydia Wims and her team of counselors, mentors and tutors do day in, day out for first generation and low income college students as well as those with disabiities.

Video courtesy of Lamar Smith and UK Student Support Services.

Since 1993, UK’s Student Support Services (SSS), a division of the Office of Institutional Diversity, has helped more than 1,500 diverse students with successful college careers. In the past five years, for example, SSS has seen an average first-year retention rate of about 92 percent and a graduation rate of 47 percent for first-generation college students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The national average for the same population is approximately 32 percent and 29 percent, respectively. Among all UK SSS alumni, 20 percent have gone on to graduate or professional schools.

Student Support Services staff of 19 peer mentors and two professional tutors is designed to provide academic support services to improve academic performance and increase retention and graduation rates of college students who are first generation, low income or have a documented disability.  SSS provides opportunities for participation in study skills development, tutoring, academic planning, personal/career/financial counseling, peer mentoring, graduate school preparation and social/cultural activities. A major focus is individual tutoring and workshops in study skills, math, writing and foreign languages.

“SSS serves to motivate and support students as they transition from one level of education to the next, while working toward the successful completion of their postsecondary education,” said the program director, Lydia Wims.

The program recently won its sixth renewal of $5 million in federal funding to continue its successful operation, serving about 160 students annually.

“Our target populations are students who many consider on the edge — minority students or those that come from Appalachian or rural communities,” Wims said.  “Many of these students struggle with the rigors of college life and balancing academics with other obligations.  Many of their high school counselors came right out and told them that they would not make it in college. We delight in proving them wrong,” she added with a little smile.

One aspiring Wildcat was told he would not make it in college — at all. A first generation student with a learning disability, he was counseled to gear his education toward vocational schools. But he proved to his teachers and counselors that he was committed, not only to college, but specifically to UK. Thanks to SSS, he is now happily and successfully enrolled at UK.

Another freshman was so homesick that she wanted to go back home before she had scarcely unpacked. She didn’t do well initially and lost her scholarship. But with the help of SSS mentors and tutors, she earned back that scholarship and is now an SSS tutor, helping others succeed.

“That’s one of the beautiful things about SSS. It’s become an extended family. Enrolling siblings and cousins of former students is a common occurrence,” said Wims.

And the SSS family continues to grow and be successful.

One SSS alumni is now a college professor, another a dentist, another an engineer, another a physician assistant, another named a Kentucky teacher of the year. One alumnus recently created a scholarship specifically for an SSS student. Another just completed two research projects on water quality in Africa for the U.S. Army.

“SSS helped me navigate (UK) as a first generation college student. It was a home away from home,” said Meredith Madison, who just completed her master’s in social work at the University of Louisville. “They were the support I did not have from family... I could get my questions answered and my voice heard at SSS. The counseling, tutoring, and peer mentor program were invaluable as well as the educational and social (fellowship) enrichment activities offered by SSS. I survived undergrad because of SSS. SSS helped me become a college graduate!”

Wentzel Mitchell, another UK graduate and SSS alumnus who now works in Washington, D.C., said SSS “provided a family atmosphere at school that allowed me and other participating students to bond together and grow as individuals.” After completing his undergraduate degree he enrolled in a graduate program and worked part-time as an SSS tutor coordinator while tutoring statistics to undergraduates. “During my time with SSS,” he added, “I could see the development of myself and others from shy, unconfident young students to confidently taking on leadership roles.”

And so is the proof of one of Wims’ favorite quotes by John Holt, attached to every email she sends. She says it best communicates the faith and devotion she and her fellow counselors and tutors have for UK SSS: “The true test of character is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don't know what to do.”

MEDIA CONTACT: Gail Hairston, 859-257-3302,