Victor Rodriguez is no stranger to overcoming adversity.
For several years while growing up, Rodriguez and his family moved around a lot, bouncing from home to home. But thanks to a few teachers, he excelled in middle school, even taking an international trip to Morocco that opened his eyes. In high school, after moving to Florida, he “scraped by” trying to adjust to being in a large school. But still he dreamed of being the first in his family to graduate from college — something the mechanical engineering student will achieve during UCF’s commencement May 2 before moving on to pursue a Ph.D. in engineering public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
“I needed that research experience [at UCF] in order to get the necessary credentials to apply to grad school.” – Victor Rodriguez, UCF student
Rodriguez will earn his bachelor’s degree thanks in part to DirectConnect to UCF, a program launched in 2006 that guarantees admission to UCF to graduates of six state colleges, including Valencia College, where Rodriguez earned his associate degree. In May, UCF will award its 50,000th degree to a DirectConnect student.
“I didn’t have the right mindset at the time to go straight to UCF,” he says.
High school had made him question his ability to excel in college, but he was ambitious and determined to become the first in his family to get a college degree. He enrolled at Valencia, where he met Eda Davis-Lowe, who encouraged him to explore STEM areas of science, technology, engineering and math, an area he had always been good at. He became interested in research and also learned about the DirectConnect program.
“They don’t have a lot of research opportunities at Valencia – UCF does,” he says. “And so I needed that research experience in order to get the necessary credentials to apply to grad school.”
“DirectConnect to UCF … continues to be recognized as a national model in the ability to provide access.” – J. Jeffrey Jones, vice provost for UCF Connect and UCF Global
This is exactly the kind of student situation that DirectConnect was established to solve: To help create access to high-quality bachelor’s degree programs for students who might not otherwise gain entry to a four-year university, says J. Jeffrey Jones, vice provost for UCF Connect and UCF Global.
“The representation of first-generation college students, students from lower socioeconomic means, and racial- and ethnic-minority students has been an impressive outcome of the program,” Jones says. “Despite ever-increasing admissions standards at the university, DirectConnect to UCF has continued to provide access to students from Central Florida. It continues to be recognized as a national model in the ability to provide access and it encourages others in higher education to try similar programs.”
Making a Bachelor’s Degree a Reality
The DirectConnect program started as a first-of-its-kind partnership with Eastern Florida State College, Lake-Sumter State College, Seminole State College and Valencia College. It has since expanded to a total of six state colleges, including Daytona State College and the College of Central Florida; been a path to UCF for more than 67,800 students; and received the Institutional Excellence for Students in Transition award by the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students. Similar programs have also been adopted by Arizona State University, University of South Florida and Florida International University.
Of the more than 50,000 degrees that will have been awarded by the end of this semester, 28,959 have been conferred to Valencia graduates like Rodriguez who came to UCF through the program.
“The spirit of collaboration has been the key to success for DirectConnect to UCF.” – J. Jeffrey Jones, vice provost for UCF Connect and UCF Global
That is by design. The system was set up to expand access to all students, but especially those who otherwise may not be able to pursue a university degree through traditional channels. In 2018 alone, this included 2,379 minority students, 1,647 first-generation students and 3,180 Pell-eligible students from low-income families.
“The spirit of collaboration has been the key to success for DirectConnect to UCF,” Jones says. “Along with our six state college partners, the university has embraced the access mission. Our faculty and staff fully understand that this has been the way that we’ve been able to serve wide distributions of the population while maintaining very high levels of academic integrity…We understand that unless everyone is at the table and has the opportunity to guide our direction, it isn’t likely to be as successful in the future as it is today.”
Nationally, of students who start at community colleges and successfully transfer to universities, only 42 percent complete a bachelor’s degree.
“DirectConnect provided a smooth transition to UCF by having offices on every campus and having knowledgeable advisors that could … assist me.” Victor Rodriguez, UCF student
“DirectConnect provided a smooth transition to UCF by having offices on every campus and having knowledgeable advisors that could review my transcript and assist me with choosing courses that can transfer into my degree at UCF,” Rodriguez says.
As time goes on, more and more students are taking advantage of the ground-breaking concept. In its first year, nearly 2,000 UCF degrees were awarded to students. Last year, about 5,000 degrees were awarded.
And the benefits to the community are to boost the potential of underserved populations and help supply the region’s workforce.
“DirectConnect to UCF provides social mobility for the citizens of Central Florida and beyond by uplifting of lives and livelihoods,” Jones says.
On the Horizon
DirectConnect continues to evolve to meet the needs of today’s students.
The program has long provided students with academic advising, student services and transfer support at community campuses by both college advisors and UCF success coaches, who are embedded at the state colleges. The results are better-prepared transfer students and a smoother transition experience, as witnessed by an 80 percent first-year retention rate for students in the program in 2018.
And the new UCF Downtown, which will be shared with Valencia College when the campus opens this fall, will have DirectConnect success coaches on site to assist more students who want to utilize the program.
Also, as online classes become more popular, students are provided with a level of success coaching that they haven’t necessarily had in the past.
The university continues to work on technology to serve students, including a new mobile app in development that will assist in providing support services to keep students on track. And UCF is expanding the program to international students.
“International DirectConnect to UCF is a recent development in the program,” Jones says. “As our state college partners increasingly see international enrollment, these students are provided the same opportunity to matriculate to UCF as any other student would. We partner with UCF Global to provide international students with the types of services that will assist them in being successful in their transition to the university.”
50,000 Degrees and Counting
On May 3, psychology major Hannah Holbrook will receive the 50,000th degree at the commencement ceremony for the College of Sciences.
Holbrook, who came through DirectConnect from Lake-Sumter State College in Clermont, wants to eventually go to medical school to study emergency medicine. But first beginning in June she’s going to start an accredited EMT course for the next year to get some hands-on field experience.
She says her transition to UCF was helped by being a member of the Tau Sigma National Honor Society, which is specifically for transfer students.
“It has allowed me — from thinking about only top 100 grad programs — to applying to and getting accepted to a fully funded top five engineering program.” – Victor Rodriguez, UCF Student
“It provides a place for transfer students to connect with others, because you are coming like I did from a small town, a small community college, and then transferring to this huge university and you don’t know anyone,” she says. “You don’t get the same experience that a freshman would have, being there for four years and getting to grow with all these people, so sometimes it can be hard for people to connect with others or network or get into research opportunities or volunteer. That’s what Tau Sigma provides.”
As for Rodriguez, he says he wouldn’t be where he is without DirectConnect, which helped put him on the path to gain his footing at UCF as a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, serve as a peer mentor, and conduct research at the NanoScience Technology Center.
To help build on his success at UCF, he says he has appreciated the “environment of other like-minded ambitious students that motivate each other to reach our highest goals.
“It has allowed me — from thinking about only top 100 grad programs — to applying to and getting accepted to a fully funded top five engineering program. I want my research to address some of the world’s greatest problems.”