The DirectConnect to UCF program this month is celebrating 10 years of helping students gain access to higher education and transform their lives.

DirectConnect to UCF guarantees students’ admission to UCF with an associate degree from one of the university’s partner colleges: Daytona State College, Eastern Florida State College, Lake-Sumter State College, Valencia College, Seminole State College of Florida and the newest member of the group, the College of Central Florida in Ocala, which joined earlier this year. Students from the colleges are assisted through the transition to UCF; they are provided with admission assistance and advising tailored to the transfer experience.

More than 41,000 students have enrolled at UCF through the program and about 71 percent of DirectConnect students have gone on to graduate within six years.

Advisors, such as UCF’s Kim Martinez at the Valencia campus, see about 1,100 students per year. She helps another 7,000 through a variety of outreach events, workshops and email advising.

“DirectConnect to UCF provides access to students who because of finances, distance, family/work demands, or other circumstances could not have attended UCF as freshmen,” Martinez said. “Through our partnerships the program provides students a cost-effective way to work on credits that will count toward their bachelor’s degrees once they transfer to UCF, as well as the opportunity to receive early and consistent support from both their state college and UCF. Helping students grow, gain confidence, and develop into independent learners who know how to leverage their own skills as well as to use the resources available to them to build on those skills and succeed is the best part of my job.”

They are students like Cathy Gutierrez, who started at Valencia College, because it was less expensive and close to home. She transferred to UCF, earned her bachelor’s degree and then landed a full scholarship to Harvard Medical School two years ago. She’s finding medical school “challenging and exhilarating.” One of her projects at Harvard is developing, a website directed toward helping pre-med students in low-resource settings connect with and learn from medical students at top schools around the country. When she graduates in two years she plans on focusing on health policy and global health.

“DirectConnect was indispensable in my education. This program facilitated my progression from community college to a state university,” Gutierrez said. “Many students have been known to fall through the cracks during this transition, and DirectConnect to UCF does a wonderful job of sealing that gap and truly enabling and encouraging students to walk the extra mile. I believe DirectConnect to UCF levels the playing field a bit for students who may not have had the same resources as students who naturally progress from high school directly to a major university.”

DirectConnect to UCF has helped diversify UCF’s student body, growing it from 25 percent minority population about a decade ago to about 41 percent currently. There has also been a 134 percent increase in Hispanic graduates among DirectConnect students from 2009 to 2014 and the number of black graduates has nearly doubled.

The program has been recognized nationally for creating a seamless pipeline of social mobility through access to higher education. Other publications have suggested DirectConnect to UCF is a blue print for other communities to follow. Among the publications praising the program: Politico Magazine , PBS Newshour and the Washington Post .

The program, through the power of partnerships, tackles another tough problem. While the majority of college freshmen in America today begin at two-year community colleges, their credits often don’t transfer to four-year institutions. According to some surveys, some students lose up to 90 percent of their credits when they transfer to a four-year institution. This does not happen to DirectConnect to UCF transfers.

The program has grown and been enhanced during the 10 years as leaders focus on improving the student experience. For example, a pathway component was launched earlier this year. It provides stronger and earlier career and academic preparation, offers structured and guided support to students before, during, and after their transfer, affords opportunities to develop and advance skills in order to promote career success and ultimately offers a smoother and easier transition experience. The new component won a WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies Outstanding Work Award.

And in January, UCF will launch a similar program to DirectConnect to UCF that’s strictly for online degrees, called UCF Online. Students who earn an associate degree from a community college can be connected with a fully online degree offered at UCF. This allows for greater schedule flexibility, which benefits Central Florida businesses who rely on part-time employees because these students will have a greater ability to juggle work and school.

President John C. Hitt, Provost Dale Whittaker, Vice Provost Jeff Jones and several DirectConnect to UCF students and graduates spoke during a celebration Monday about the success of the program and the impact the program and the partnerships that make it happen have had on the lives of students and their families.

Michael Morsberger, vice president for Alumni Relations and Development, and chief executive officer of the UCF Foundation, also announced a scholarship for DirectConnect to UCF students that is being established thanks to a generous five-year donation from Whittaker and his wife Mary.