Inside Iowa State
June 11, 1999
Opening doors to a college education
by Anne Dolan
Her office is tucked into the bowels of Lagomarcino Hall and her efforts are all about education, but, if done well -- legally speaking -- Jane Agyeman's job has little to do with Iowa State.
She directs the Educational Talent Search (ETS) at Iowa State, a federal grant-funded program aimed at getting at- risk high school students to graduate and go on to college -- any college. The rules prevent her from recruiting for Iowa State.
The "at-risk" in this case are students from low-income families whose parents or guardians didn't graduate from college. Agyeman and her full-time staff of four offer services that vary from providing information about educational opportunities after high school to arranging college visits. In between are fee waivers for the ACT or SAT exams and college admission applications; computerized scholarship searches and information on other ways to pay for school; personal interest and career inventories; and help filling out admissions, financial aid and scholarship applications.
The Educational Talent Search program at Iowa State is one of a half dozen in Iowa and more than 300 nationwide. Agyeman said about 1,000 students are enrolled in her program each year. For the four-year grant period that began last fall, Agyeman and her staff are serving students at 13 high schools and three middle schools in 12 Iowa cities: Alden, Blairsburg, Des Moines, Dubuque, Gowrie, Fort Dodge, Iowa Falls, Lake City, LeGrand, Manson, Marshalltown and Tama.
Geographically scattered, yet hand-picked, these communities have like traits that Agyeman looks for when it's time to write the next grant proposal: high numbers of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches at school (to indicate low-income families); low numbers of counselors relative to students at a school; high drop-out rates in the high school; and a low ratio of adults with college degrees in that county. There are no ethnicity requirements to participate in Educational Talent Search and Agyeman said about 85 percent of the students her staff works with are Caucasian.
"Whether they come to Iowa State or go to St. Olaf (Minnesota) is insignificant," she said. "I have to buy into that to be honest to my job."
But she acknowledged there are subtle ways -- arriving in a university vehicle and sending all correspondence on university stationery -- of keeping the Iowa State name in front of students.
Agyeman is a logical spokeswoman on the importance of a college degree; she has about a half dozen of them, from Iowa State and schools in her native Ghana, on Africa's west coast. Few of them came easily.
When she finished the equivalency of high school in Ghana, she said she wanted to be a secretary. Her father thought otherwise and asked her to visit with one of his close friends, who advised her to become a teacher.
She completed a teacher's training program and taught fifth grade for two years, then returned to school to specialize in teaching agriculture in secondary schools. She taught for two more years before enrolling at the University of Ghana in a charter program in home economics extension. With that degree, she taught agriculture and home economics at a secondary school in Ghana's capital city, Accra.
In 1981, Agyeman's former husband came to Iowa State to begin work on a Ph.D. in adult education. In December 1983, after a two-year wait for visas, she and the younger of their two sons joined him and Agyeman began work on a bachelor's degree in home economics. (It would take 10 more years to get a visa for their older son.)
By December 1987, she had earned bachelor's and master's degrees, and the next year she began work on a Ph.D. in home economics education with a minor in counselor education.
The Ph.D. came in May 1992, but not before she had two years of full-time experience in family counseling with Children and Families of Iowa, Des Moines.
She has worked since October 1993 in the "TRIO" grant programs (dubbed that by Congress when there were just three of them), formed under the Higher Education Act of 1965. Today there are seven TRIO programs, three of which operate at Iowa State. In addition to ETS, Student Support Services (directed by Mariama Hodari) provides tutoring, counseling and instruction services; and the McNair Achievement Program (directed by George Jackson) encourages low-income and minority undergraduates to consider careers in college teaching and prepare for doctoral study.
And beginning this fall, Iowa State will receive TRIO funds for an Upward Bound program, which Agyeman also will direct. Upward Bound helps high school students and adults prepare for college with after-school, Saturday and summer classes in literature, the sciences, foreign languages and math.
As ETS director, Agyeman's duties are chiefly administrative. She negotiates space and scheduling details with school principals, updates promotional literature on the program, checks in with high school counselors to see how the program can be improved, oversees an annual budget of about $265,000 and prepares reports -- lots of them.
From the start, she has tried to track how many ETS students enroll in a college or university. That requires lots of letters to the students and college registrars to get an accurate count -- a sometimes futile effort.
But whatever the number, Agyeman gets excited about it. For example, she knows that of approximately 750 high school seniors who graduated from ETS in the last three years, about 58 of them alone are here at Iowa State.
"That was an eye opener for me," she said. "I was very tickled."
She expects her "tracking" of students to expand in the future.
"More and more, I think we're responsible for preparing them to succeed in college, not just get there," she said. "I think someday I'll be required to report the colleges they graduate from, not just the high schools. I'm not going to sit and wait for that day."
Another challenge she half-anticipates from the U.S. Department of Education is a request to document that some students wouldn't go to college without intervention from Educational Talent Search.
"That will require control groups," the foresighted Agyeman begins . . .
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