The University of Central Florida has earned $2.2 million in grants to help first-generation and at-risk students pursuing STEM and other fields succeed in college.

The money from the U.S. Department of Education, which will be delivered during the next five years, will support PRIME STEM/Student Support Services. Half of the grant will help first-generation, financially disadvantaged and/or disabled students who are pursuing science, technology, engineering and math careers. The other half will help the same group of students who are pursuing other majors.

“We are thrilled that UCF was selected to receive two grant awards which will support programming and services for low-income and first-generation students,” said DeLaine Priest, an associate vice president of Student Development and Enrollment Services, which oversees the program. “We know this comprehensive approach enhances student success and persistence to graduation.”

UCF leaders said they know the program works, because for the past five years the PRIME STEM/SSS programs has served 242 undergraduates. Of those participants, 138 are still enrolled working their way toward graduation. Another 89 have graduated and either landed jobs or have gone onto medical school, pharmacy school or graduate school.

Ramon Santana, an electrical engineering major, said the program has made all the difference in the world to him. As a first-generation student, he didn’t know what to expect in college or whether he could really finish. Now, he’s juggling school, work and an internship with FPL as a protection and control engineer. He is also planning to earn a master’s degree after earning his bachelor’s degree next year.

“Participating in PRIME STEM was one of the best decisions I’ve made,” Santana said. “I would not be where I am today without all the help and support I got from the program. It has given me the confidence to know I have what it takes to succeed and the motivation to finish my engineering degree.”

The program’s director Rebekah McCloud said PRIME STEM provides a variety of services to students including proactive academic coaching, advising, personal counseling, peer mentoring, peer tutoring, supplemental instruction and learning community opportunities.

In addition to support services, students are also provided with financial, life-management and academic-success workshops, cultural and professional events that help students network, and assistance in applying for admissions to graduate or professional school, including help in obtaining federal student aid. The program also creates a safe, familial place for students to share their experiences and grow.

“We are ecstatic that not only will we be able to extend our program for another five years, but that we will now be able to provide support to an additional 140 students,” McCloud said. “This is an awesome opportunity for our students.”

Those new students may see a familiar face at the PRIME STEM office. Santana said he is so grateful for what the staff did for him, that he’s now a peer mentor and tutor for the program.

“There are just so many positive benefits to gain when they join the program,” Santana said. “This program will give students the support they need to have a successful college career. Essentially, it feels like a home away from home.”

Donations to support first-generation students can be made through the UCF Foundation. Gifts in support of first-generation students are matched dollar for dollar by the state.