“I feel the most like myself when I’m around people in Epic. There’s more to school now, not just trying to get this degree, just trying to be stressed. A big reason that I love going to school and why I’m passionate, why I’ve made it as far as I have, is because of Epic. 100 percent.” – Kiara Galvan, senior social work major at Metropolitan State University of Denver and an Epic Scholars Peer Leader
Epic Scholars is a Metropolitan State University of Denver program that provides financial assistance and meaningful support to independent students, including former foster youth, emancipated youth and students facing challenging life circumstances that could prevent them from pursuing higher education.
Epic Scholars get access to a wide range of services. Arguably the most impactful is financial support, in the form of a stipend and scholarship opportunities. Other forms of support, though, are widely reported as life-changing by students, including individualized academic coaching, emotional support, school and career advising, social events and referrals for housing.
The program administrator, Miguel Huerta, whose official title is the Assistant Director of Community Engagement and Programs at MSU Denver’s Student Care Center, describes the program as having a uniquely broad perspective.
“We’re serving all independent students, not only former foster youth,” he said, “We articulate the overlap and similarities in needs and in what works. Expanding that conversation is really key.”
There are two primary ways that students learn about Epic: an introduction from Miguel or through word of mouth. Staff from different departments of the university directly connect students who they believe may qualify for Epic to Miguel. He then reaches out to those students with information and an application to be part of Epic.
Faculty and staff also serve as referrals if they become concerned about a student or file a care referral. Epic not only reaches out to those students but provides information to faculty and staff on how they can support their students in other ways.
Lastly, Epic Scholar peer leaders are important referral sources. Peer leaders are fellow students, often independent students and current or former Epic Scholars themselves, who refer, mentor and befriend new Scholars.
“If we’re ever in class and someone happens to mention they’ve been in the foster care system or have any of the independent student identities, we always advocate for the program and say, ‘Hey, you should totally reach out and apply to Epic,” said Vanesa Cuellar Leyva, an environmental engineering major and peer leader, “Sometimes scholarship programs force a lot of pressure and a lot of to do lists on you but with Epic it’s more just like, ‘Come to these dope events that we plan and just be yourself.’”
Between peer leaders, scholars and Epic staff like Miguel, a strong and supportive community has formed.
“I had an amazing peer leader last semester and I really just wanted to advocate for people who are in the same shoes and have similar feelings and experiences,” said Vince Castillo, a social work major and peer leader.
“The biggest thing that I’ve heard from other students and that I’ve felt myself is that since we are an inner city campus, it really is hard to navigate our personal and academic lives. We’re always busy. It’s the hustle and bustle in the city. And then we joined Epic, and it was just different,” said Jolie Bradshaw, a pre-med student and peer leader. “It gave us a warm and fuzzy feeling. It’s like being with family. You feel like you can come out of your shell and you can enjoy what’s going on. Everything is a little bit easier and it motivates a lot more people to get involved on campus.”
Epic Scholars has allocated time and resources to evaluate the program and student needs, conducting participatory action research that engages students directly. In this type of research, the students provide feedback on their experiences and the research itself.
“It has been really cool to let them have some ownership and really guide what we’re doing because it is about their lived experience,” said Dr. Erin Boyce, full-time faculty in the social work department at MSU Denver and the lead researcher for Epic Scholars, “So the peer leaders and graduate interns that work with Epic Scholars are part of the research team; they’re really the leaders and facilitators and decision makers”
“[Erin] let us students take that initiative and structure the research, and really stay true to us,” added Kiara. “We try to fight the stigma of this program serving people who are just damaged and hurt. We’re not our trauma.”
“And now that I’m further in my social work career – I’m in my senior year – it’s an upper hand to have this opportunity to do a research project and be involved with something that hits to your heart, not just on a professional level, but on an emotional level.”
The results of their recent needs assessment were hugely impactful – both for the Epic Scholars program and for the field as a whole.
The research team started with a large quantitative needs assessment in 2019. They sent an email survey to 200 current and former scholars and received about 75 responses. The initial needs assessment was meant to be followed up by focus groups in spring of 2020 but, as with most of life as we knew it, the pandemic upended those plans.
The team wasn’t deterred. They completed a second needs assessment in 2020 to see if needs had changed throughout the pandemic. Then, in spring of 2021, they conducted focus groups with 24 Epic Scholars.
After reviewing feedback, the team found that the needs students reported were largely expected.
“The biggest takeaway for us is that the needs are financial, that everything identified as a need can be tied back to finances,” Dr. Boyce explained, “Whether that’s transportation to get back and forth to school or finding affordable child care.”
The research provided detailed insights into the lives of Epic Scholars, including many common needs:
- Almost 78 percent of students reported food insecurity over the year.
- About 46 percent of Epic Scholars work full-time in addition to attending classes and an even larger percentage work part-time jobs.
- About 7 percent of scholars care for children and about 12 percent care for elderly parents or other family members. And so our students have a lot of caregiving duties outside of their education as well.
- Large numbers of students reported housing insecurity and mental health concerns, with many students reporting that they didn’t know where to turn for mental health treatment and support.
While COVID-19 likely played a role in these results, overall the research didn’t find that the pandemic had a major impact on student lives. The findings of the needs assessments in 2019 and 2020 didn’t differ much, which the researchers took as a positive.
What’s next for Epic? Peer leaders and staff agree that the program has big goals and aspirations to better serve their community and expand their scope.
Dr. Boyce plans to further ramp up evaluation with surveys throughout the year to examine student experiences and identify areas for improvement. They plan to evaluate the program through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion.
In the meantime, the program is working to address opportunities identified in the needs assessment, from providing additional financial support and guidance for difficult circumstances like securing affordable housing. They’re exploring ways to provide professional mentorship as well as peer mentorship, a desire identified through the needs assessment, by connecting with other mentorship programs on campus. Continuing to involve students in research development and processes, another professional opportunity, is a priority.
Expansion is a major goal as well, to spread the word around campus more effectively and serve more independent students at MSU Denver and beyond.
“I think MSU Denver has the opportunity to be a leading model nationally in this,” said Miguel, “ I think that’s really exciting. We’re in uncharted territory and we want to really tell a story that can inspire programs elsewhere because folks need the support. Folks deserve to be in higher education and have the opportunity to be successful.”
“How can we access resources to make sure that this is a really fulfilling experience for the students?” added Dr. Boyce, “It’s not just about the learning, but also being able to provide and demonstrate the work that [students are] doing and see how they can impact change with policy makers and with decision makers.”
In order for Epic to continue to successfully support independent students at MSU Denver, and in order for the program to expand its capacity and reach, it needs more funds and awareness. As Kiara put it, “The biggest issue is that [MSU Denver] has around 200 independent students, and right now [Epic] can only accommodate about 50 of those students because it’s just, like, budget.”
Budget is indeed the largest obstacle holding the program back. Miguel described the need for a larger budget and how much they could achieve with more resources.
“As Kiara said, we’re leaving out three fourths of independent students that are on campus. But I’m also thinking about all those that don’t ever get here because they don’t think that they can. Outreach efforts could be bolstered. We’re not even able to support the students we have here now, but long term vision, we want to draw folks here because we’ve shown that we can support them in their needs and their successes.”
“We need ongoing support from donors and partners to really create a pathway for folks to the front steps of the University and then to their degree and to a career,” Miguel continued. “It’s not about the sad story or you having to prove you deserve it. It’s about how amazing you are.”