Janelis Rodriguez was born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts. Yet stepping onto the AIC campus for summer orientation was like entering a whole new world. As a first-generation college student, Rodriguez found herself overwhelmed by things other students already seemed to know, like how to register for classes and how to apply for financial aid.
Then, a friendly face appeared—it was Terrence O’Neill, director of AIC’s Core Education program, known as ACE.
“I was standing with my mom, and Terrence walked up to us,” Rodriguez says, adding that O’Neill was making the rounds with a list of prospective students. “He told us all about the ACE program.”
That introduction changed the course of her college life, she says. “Terrence is an amazing individual. He cares so much, not just about who we are as students but who we are outside of this program.”
ACE, the College’s program for first-generation college students, is a federally funded TRIO student support program. (Federal TRIO programs identify and provide services for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.) Its mission is to help first-generation students get the most out of their college experience. Students eligible for the ACE program receive personal mentoring, academic assistance, career counseling, financial aid assistance, referral services, and graduate school preparation, as well as a host of workshops, programs, and cultural activities. They also take a specialized three-credit First Year Experience course, where they meet other ACE students new to college and focus on leadership development, study skills, and navigating the challenges first-generation college students face, such as learning to manage their time and their money.
ACE students also connect to the community by participating in service projects. “The biggest factor in being a successful student for many freshmen is a sense of connection,” O’Neill says. “Connection to resources and connection in feeling like they fit in. We help students navigate everything, and act as advisors throughout the year. It’s like a family support system on campus.”
O’Neill knows of what he speaks—he was a first-generation student and “a young struggling parent while a college student,” he says. He has been the ACE program director for seven years, after being hired as its assistant director in 2010. With bachelor’s degrees in political science and English literature from UMass Boston and a master’s degree in communications from UMass Amherst, O’Neill’s background also includes coaching soccer and doing political work for the John W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs in Boston. There, he was involved in political communication and ethnic conflict resolution, researching areas such as Northern Ireland, South Africa, Rwanda, Burundi, and Bosnia. O’Neill says he was drawn to AIC’s history as a college founded by immigrants and its strong commitment to serving first-generation students.
Students stay in the ACE program throughout their time at AIC. Currently, 160 students are enrolled; typically, about forty new students are selected from the incoming freshman class
ACE is a one-stop shop for resources and success tools, says April Voltz, EdD, dean for academic success and former ACE director. “ACE helps equip students with strategies and skills for interacting with professors, public speaking, group work, and individual work,” she says. The program also hosts Cultural Nights, where students share songs, dance, and food with their peers and participate in activities like volleyball and dominoes. Annual ACE program highlights include a New York City trip with a Broadway show, and an end-of-year Achievement Awards ceremony.
She credits the dedicated ACE team members with providing a holistic and close-knit experience for students who may not have a family member or parent supporting them. ACE staff includes O’Neill and Assistant Director Julie Hill-Spivey, along with academic advisors, graduate assistants, and sophomore peer leaders, which are work-study positions for ACE students.
Rodriguez, now a junior in a five-year occupational therapy program that will culminate in a master’s degree, says ACE is her on-campus family. Her parents didn’t always know how to help her, she says: “Finances were really hard for me; I had no idea what FAFSA was, and I thought that when I took student loans, it was free money.”
Members of the ACE team explained it all, encouraging her to take the least amount in loans and helping her find other solutions, like scholarships.
Building that on-campus family is where ACE shines, according to O’Neill. “Relationships are such an important factor,” he says. “We talk about anything that gets in the way of them succeeding. There’s nothing that surprises me in terms of the struggles students go through.”
AIC is committed to meeting the needs of students from diverse backgrounds. The College is a member of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), and its student diversity is reflected in the ACE program. Having taught English-language learners in public school, O’Neill respects the challenges students face when learning a new culture and a new language.
ACE program participant Gloria Sanchez, a junior from the Dominican Republic majoring in psychology and sociology, is one of those students. “When I got to college, I didn’t know what to do or where to go,” she says. “I didn’t know the language, but I got to know people who are now my family.”
Sanchez says O’Neill gives students the space and opportunity they need to grow. “He’s always professional,” she says. “And the way he works with you makes you feel professional too.”
The respect is mutual—O’Neill says Sanchez has been “instrumental as a planner and performer” at the ACE program’s Cultural and Bachata Nights and in planning community service projects. She’s also a Dean’s List student, was a sophomore peer leader, and has been recognized with awards and scholarships, he says.
In fact, the ACE team considers shining a spotlight on students and their achievements to be among the program’s most critical roles. “I liken the approach to a parent with a refrigerator,” Voltz says. “We bring attention to positive behaviors and highlight those assignments where a student has exceeded expectations—including giving awards for things someone might not notice.”
That includes the program’s Emerging Scholar Award, which recognizes students who have made great progress in their coursework, as well as awards for students who’ve been named to the Dean’s List and who are leaders on campus.
O’Neill says he’s always been inspired by quiet strength, dignity, and perseverance. “Sometimes the most inspirational moments come from the most challenging of circumstances,” he adds.
ACE students exemplify those qualities. Dahsia Middlebrooks, of New Haven, Connecticut, graduated from AIC with a degree in public health and sociology, and is now pursuing a master’s degree in public health. A track and field standout, she’s been a leader in the ACE program for years, O’Neill says. Middlebrooks says the ACE team—and her fellow students in the program—were critical in helping her finish college.
ACE has helped me in so many ways,” she says. “When we do well—if we get awards—they’re the first ones to tell us they’re proud.”
Rodriguez agrees: “The extra guidance of ACE has been a great support to me. When I’m having a bad day or I need to vent, I can go to the ACE office. Honestly, it’s like my second family. I wish everyone could be in the ACE program.”