From first generation students to those going back to school to change careers, a new UCF program is helping students just shy of finishing their college degree graduate.

UCF’s Knights Graduation Initiative focuses on students who are 18 credits or fewer from earning their undergraduate degrees, but who are experiencing difficulty and are in danger of dropping out.

“It’s the university’s effort to give students the opportunity to get to the finish line,” said Gordon Chavis, associate vice president for enrollment services for UCF.

The program is helping students like Alvaro Velasquez, who is just nine credits short of earning a degree in computer science.

“I am so grateful,” said Velasquez, who became ineligible for financial aid before spring because of excess credit hours. “I had just spent all my reserve funds on grad school applications. So needless to say, this grant was very helpful.”

Velasquez is no slacker. He has been continuously enrolled since he started at UCF and expects to graduate in May. He already has a summer internship lined up with the Air Force Research Laboratory. Then it is off to graduate school so he can eventually become a college professor. He wants to pay it forward by teaching the next generation of young people about computer science.

Knights Graduation Initiative started with a pilot group of six students in the fall and expanded to 26 students this spring. Before the fall semester, administrators reviewed lists of students who had 18 or fewer credits to go before graduation but were not yet enrolled for the fall. All of the students had been continuously enrolled at the university and had filed a form declaring their intent to graduate that semester.

UCF reached out to the students to discuss the students’ challenges and determine how the university could help.

For some students, life changes such as having a baby were forcing them to take a semester off before finishing. But for others, it was a matter of class scheduling or money.

UCF then worked with each student to find solutions. Some were able to get into classes or rearrange their schedules to get back on track. UCF helped others find scholarships or grants they had not received before. The one-on-one advising helped get most of the students back on track and narrowed the list of students to six last year.

Those six students needed financial help and had used all of their other funding options. The university awarded a total of $10,000 to the six students to help them enroll for the fall semester. Three graduated in the fall, and one more is on track to finish this year. The other two are still enrolled, but not yet done.

The financial aid is in the form of a grant, so students don’t have to pay it back.

This spring, staffers went through the same process and reached out to almost 200 students; 26 students were assisted with $47,000 worth of grants.

Knights Graduation Initiative is one of the newest programs to help students. About 73 percent of undergraduates receive grants or scholarship aid, and 48 percent of UCF’s students graduate without any educational debt compared to the national average of 33 percent.

UCF student Tonisha Stubbs said more universities should have programs like Knights Graduation Initiative to help students who run into unexpected problems.

The psychology and social work major is 16 credits away from graduating.  She was a senior bank teller until she was laid off in 2009. Stubbs has been substituting in public schools to help pay for college. She had too many credits to qualify for any more financial aid, she said.

“This program was a blessing, and I am not ashamed to let anyone who will listen know how it has blessed me,” said the single mother of two. “This is not just a good program, it is so necessary especially for people who are trying to make a better life for their families.”

Stubbs expects to graduate in May and plans to become a licensed clinical social worker so she can help others.

“Education changes lives,” Chavis said. “We strive to help our students throughout their entire college experience. We’ll do whatever we can to help them graduate.”