The same path paved with encouragement and the tools needed for academic success that led Charlie Cordova to earning a post-graduate college degree and fulfilling his dream of becoming a licensed psychological counselor has landed him the prestigious 2016 TRIO achievers award. Only three individuals in the entire Rocky Mountain region (Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Utah and North and South Dakota) will receive the award.
The award is given by the organization A Support Program in Reaching Excellence (ASPIRE) to recognize former TRIO project participants who have enrolled in and successfully completed a TRIO program, completed a postsecondary program of study and are now considered to be a “person of high stature” within their profession. TRIO is a set of programs designed to help students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation college students and individuals with disabilities to progress through the academic pipeline from middle school to post baccalaureate programs.
By his own account, it took years before Cordova really believed he could tackle and complete a master’s degree program. Cordova was a student in special education programs through most of his early education years through high school. He said school was very difficult for him at that time and he didn’t think of himself as someone who could succeed in college.
One thing he knew for certain is that he wanted to work in a field where he could help people, and with the encouragement and support and encouragement of the TRIO programs he participated in throughout his college years, he was able to fulfill that dream.
“You have to understand the struggles people go through, in order to help them work through those challenges,” said Cordova. “For me, school was a challenge, and the TRIO programs gave me the tools and helped me succeed at all levels. They don’t do the work for you. That is up to you. But they do give you the tools you need to succeed.
“Everyone has a life experience that is unique to them. People need to recognize that they make choices. To settle is a choice, to believe you can’t be successful is as much a choice as being successful.”
After graduating from Rocky Mountain High School in 2003, Cordova went on a two-year LDS mission. He said his experiences on that mission greatly increased his desire to work in a field where he could make a difference in other people’s lives. When he returned from his mission, he enrolled in the communication program at Northwest College, where a program called “Project Succeed,” a TRIO program, helped him build the confidence he needed to enter a program at the University of Wyoming, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in communication with a minor in child and family studies.
By then he knew in his heart that he wanted to become a licensed psychological counselor. He also was keenly aware of the fact that he would have to earn a master’s degree to do that. Once again, a TRIO program, McNair Scholars, helped him every step of the way to enter and successfully complete his post-secondary education, earning his master’s degree and fulfilling his dream to become a licensed psychological counselor.
“When you don’t come from a world of academia, if your parents don’t come from academia, it’s hard to navigate the system,” explained Cordova. “The people at the program really helped me with all that. They also encouraged me and that made it easier for me to believe in myself.”
The TRIO Programs are federal outreach and student services programs designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. The ASPIRE website explains that TRIO includes eight programs targeted to serve and assist students who might not normally complete college.
The recipients of the grants, depending on the specific program, are institutions of higher education, public and private agencies and organizations including community-based organizations with experience in serving disadvantaged youth and secondary schools.
Students enrolled in today’s TRIO programs “mirror the nation’s multicultural and multiethnic society,” according to information provided by the ASPIRE organization. Thirty-seven percent of TRIO students are white, 35 percent are African-American, 19 percent are Hispanic, 4 percent are Native American and 4 percent are Asian-American. Twenty-two thousand TRIO students are disabled.
The goal of the program is to encourage these groups to not only attend and graduate from but eventually be successful in their chosen career. The programs offer support such as tutoring, mentoring and financial resource guidance.
One of Cordova’s mentors at UW, Susan Stoddard, assistant director of McNair Scholar program, nominated him for the award. Cordova was then asked to write an essay about his academic career and how the programs helped him.
“In many ways, I am the vision of what these programs hope to achieve with all of their students – someone who got their bachelor’s degree and later a master’s degree and a career afterward.”
Cordova has been working as a private practice mental health practitiner at LIFT in Lovell for the past three years. His clients consist primarily of children grades kindergarten through 12, but he also works with some college kids and adults. He said most of his referrals come from the State Dept. of Family Services, law enforcement, CARES and local school districts.
“Originally, I pictured myself working in schools, and I had several interviews with schools, but all required more experience,” said Cordova. “I decided I needed to get more experience in mental health if I wanted to be that premiere candidate down the road. I’m pretty happy to be doing the work that I’m doing right now. It’s a little different than my original plan, but I’m very happy doing it.”
Cordova is the first in his family to earn a college degree.
“The advice I would give every kid who is thinking about going to college is don’t let anyone put a ceiling on you,” he said. “Just because your parents didn’t get a college education doesn’t mean you can’t get a college education. Just because you are living in poverty doesn’t mean that you can’t get an education. It doesn’t mean you’re not smart and it doesn’t mean you’re not capable. Everyone is capable of achieving whatever they choose to focus on or what they are really determined to do.
“From the time I started college, I wanted to become a counselor, but I found out you had to have a master’s degree for that. I never felt that I could achieve that. I was so far removed from that when I first started, but I went ahead thinking I’d see where I finish. The people at the TRIO programs at Northwest College helped me get to UW. So much of it is having support and that is what TRIO is all about. That support is why I am where I am today.”
Cordova said he hopes someone else can see the possibilities for themselves by seeing what he has done.
“A lot of it is comfort zone,” said Cordova. “If you’re afraid of failing and you don’t try, then you’re certainly not going to make it. When I work with people who have a lot of anxiety or depression, I see them setting those kinds of limits on themselves. What I tell them is setting limits is making a choice. You can achieve your dreams; the only thing that stops you from doing that is telling yourself that you can’t. I call it ‘giveupitis.’”
Cordova is the son of Gilbert and Cindy Cordova. He lives in Lovell with his wife and three children. He will receive his award a special luncheon and ceremony to be held in Jackson on Oct. 3.
By Patti Carpenter