RISING SCHOLARS: A Program that Taps Potential & Nurtures Promise

First Class of Rising Scholars Prepares for High School Graduation as Need Rises for More Mentors

Student success is a guiding principle for Kent State University at Geauga. But fostering student success starts long before incoming freshmen take their first college course. That’s why the Rising Scholars program was established five years ago to start identifying a select group of at-risk students showing academic promise as early as sixth grade, to provide them consistent mentorship and support. The program is designed for them to maximize their high school years and focus on making well-informed career choices after graduation… because potential holds promise.

The program began in 2019 with two Kent State Geauga students serving as mentors for eight Rising Scholars. There are now 36 Rising Scholars in 7th-11th grades across multiple school districts. However, the program currently has no mentors on staff and needs to hire two to six qualified Kent State Geauga students this Spring to provide continuing support for these Rising Scholars. Without consistent mentorship, the success of these students becomes increasingly at risk.

At-risk middle schoolers exhibit grades, behaviors, and income levels that can predict their likelihood of failing to graduate from high school six years later. Rural students in the Geauga-Summit region face many such risks, including generational poverty, lack of role models, and insufficient academic preparation. By the time these students enroll at Kent State’s regional campuses, 81 percent require financial aid (mostly in Pell Grants), and most require remediation to meet academic standards.

So in order to offset these trends, Dr. Robin Dever established the Rising Scholars program at Kent State Geauga when she was Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of the Middle Childhood Education (MCED) Program. Two seventh-grade students from each of four area school districts (Berkshire, Cardinal, Twinsburg, and Nordonia Hills) launched the program. Now as Assistant Dean of Kent State Geauga and Twinsburg Academic Center (TAC), Dr. Dever has hired career advisor Stacey Tiburski to take on directorship of the Rising Scholars program at this regional campus.

Tiburski is focused on finding qualified new mentors. “The application is posted on Handshake, and we are currently visiting writing classes at the TAC and Burton campus to recruit,” she says.

The Rising Scholars program is designed to increase the number of students who successfully complete high school, continue their education beyond high school, are college-ready, and enter the workforce with skills that will enhance the stability and economic growth of the region.
To qualify for the program, Rising Scholars must meet a family income threshold, maintain academic and attendance requirements, and be potential first-generation college students. They are supervised and guided through communication and leadership skills; community service projects; plus organization, time management, goal-setting, and decision-making over a six-year period, including weekly mentoring from Kent State students.

The first class of Rising Scholars is now on track to graduate from high school in Spring 2025. Dr. Dever and Tiburski hope to see these students matriculate to Kent State Geauga in Fall 2025 but they support all career pathways borne from student success. 
All currently enrolled Rising Scholars who complete the program will be eligible for a scholarship to attend the Kent State Geauga Campus starting in Fall 2025. To qualify for tuition scholarships, Rising Scholars must have participated in the entire program, maintained a minimum 2.5 GPA, and agreed to serve as a university student mentor for new scholars entering the program.

Overall, Dr. Dever and Tiburski are pleased with how well Rising Scholars is fulfilling its mission. Despite the temporary lack of mentors on staff, the setback is considered a growing pain as the program is maturing.

“We are thrilled by the progress our mentors have made with the scholars and the connections we have established with the community,” they report. “We take pride in our programming designed to prepare students for college, vocational training, or entering the workforce. We plan on connecting with the scholars this Spring to track recent progress.” 

In addition to the struggle to recruit qualified mentors who have enough time to dedicate to the program, unanticipated obstacles along the way have included COVID-19 restrictions which delayed access to school districts and required the temporary cancellation of all in-person workshops and activities. 

Ongoing local funding is vital to support scholarships for university student mentors (the most costly aspect of the program) as well as programming and administrative costs. Thankfully, community support of the Rising Scholars program has helped keep it afloat, including initial funding from the Cleveland Foundation and generous individual donations from Giving Tuesday fundraisers, which receive extra support from the Kent State Foundation.

“We are always looking to build relationships with community organizations that can support our mission by financial means or volunteering to host a workshop or training session for our scholars,” Tiburski adds.
Further, educators and parents can support promising students by participating in active listening and allowing their students to explore all possibilities as they map out their futures. Community members can volunteer to host a workshop or allow students to participate in shadowing opportunities. 

Dr. Dever is excited for the future of the Rising Scholars program. “We have a great team of individuals guiding the program and we are continuously searching for new ideas and ways we can support our scholars,” she says. 

Student success is an equal opportunity for both Rising Scholars at the start of their academic journey and for their mentors, who receive priceless real-world experience to complement their coursework as they pursue undergraduate degrees at Kent State Geauga.

Savannah Foltz, woman with short brown hair smiling

Savannah Foltz of Warren is a recent graduate of Kent State Geauga with a Bachelor of Science in Education. She became a Rising Scholars mentor while in her first MCED class with Dr. Dever.

“I immediately decided that it was the perfect opportunity to gain experience with students around the ages I would be working with in the near future, as well as help these low-income and/or at-risk students to get much-needed support,” she says.

“I loved the idea of being able to help these students succeed, as well as offer them a scholarship to KSU-Geauga upon completion of the program. I believe that this program gives students a sense of community in each other, provides them with adults who care, teaches them valuable skills for whatever career path they choose, and supports them in any way possible.”

Although Foltz was never considered an at-risk student herself, she understood from experience how life’s complications can cause roadblocks and delays along the academic pathway, and how much motivation it takes to persevere.

Originally from Vienna, Ohio, she graduated from Mathews High School in 2012, where she was a member of the National Honor Society and graduated in the Top 10 of her class.

“I have always wanted to be a teacher, but life got in the way for a while,” she explains. “Once I was in a better place, I decided it was now or never.”

She re-enrolled at Kent State Geauga as a non-traditional student, making the Dean's and President's Lists several times and graduating Summa Cum Laude in December 2023.

She credits her experience as a Rising Scholars mentor for better preparing her for her current role as a long-term substitute teacher at Cardinal Middle School. She hopes to gain a permanent position in the Fall as an English Language Arts teacher (after gaining her licensure in Middle Childhood Education).

“The Rising Scholars program made me keenly aware of just how many students may be struggling in some way. It isn't always the ones you expect, and it definitely isn't all the same struggle. I have always been an empathetic person, but being a mentor in Rising Scholars was eye-opening. It made all of the things we learn in school ‘real.’ For example, if a student's basic needs are not met at home, it often makes everything school-related seem trivial to them.”

Ever reaching for the next rung, Foltz plans to pursue a master’s degree after a couple of years of teaching to further her knowledge in the education realm, she says.

As for the future of Rising Scholars, Foltz says, “I believe that the most important thing we can do is to ensure that we have mentors in the program who care and listen to the students. We need to stay current on meetings and keep these students engaged and believing in themselves. The biggest challenges are those that are largely out of our control, like when a student moves out of a district. I think another challenge is getting these students to realize their potential and to work hard to succeed. Many of them struggle in school or struggle to apply themselves for one reason or another. In this case, we need to remind them of their capabilities and notice when they are trying their best and praise them for it.”

You can help nurture potential and promise through the Rising Scholars program. If you are a community member with a resource to share or a Kent State Geauga student who would like to help drive student success as a mentor, contact program director Stacey Tiburski at stibursk@kent.edu or (330) 888-6386.

POSTED: Thursday, February 15, 2024 08:38 AM
Updated: Wednesday, April 10, 2024 04:38 PM
Estelle R. Brown