Higher education is about opportunities for all students, no matter their background. USI is made up of departments, offices, faculty and staff dedicated to the success of our Screaming Eagles. This is especially true for those in the TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) Program.
The SSS program is one of eight grant-funded TRIO programs offered through the U.S. Department of Education—its goal is to motivate students, who are first-generation, low-income and/or have a registered disability, to successfully complete degree requirements.
“We’re the safety net, whether students need it or not,” says Tina Munoz-Bryant, Program Director of SSS. “I always tell students it’s better to have us and not need us than need us and not have us. We work with a variety of students across campus, from those who are on academic probation to Honors Program students.”
But TRIO SSS isn’t limited to support in academics, career development and personal and financial aid. The program also broadens and enhances students’ experiences while at USI. During the 2023 spring break, a group of students had the opportunity to embark on a special trip to Puerto Rico.
A cultural enrichment trip, the week-long adventure to the U.S. territory was an opportunity for students to learn about art history, visit historic sites, hike in the rainforest and attend a student leadership symposium, introducing them to local leaders from various industries.
Thanks to funds from the program’s budget and Zion Leadership Group (a group that works with educational institutions on cultural trips), TRIO SSS was able to offer the trip to 12 USI students in the program, completely free of charge. Students who had an interest in the trip were required to submit an application to Zion, who made the final decision on who would attend. Tami Jaramillo Zuniga and Angie Valuch, SSS Academic Counselors, accompanied the students on the trip.
“At least three quarters of the students had never flown before. And some of them had never been outside of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky or the Tri-state area,” says Jaramillo Zungia.
Alix Hardy, who signed up with TRIO during an involvement fair her freshman year, couldn’t wait to go on the trip. As someone who has always wanted to travel, the spring break excursion was something she knew she couldn’t pass up. “I have never had an opportunity to travel outside of the country,” she says. “When I heard about this amazing opportunity, especially from a biological standpoint in the diversity that Puerto Rico has, I just really wanted to be a part of that.”
Hardy, a senior biology major from Salem, Indiana, and fellow USI students come from a variety of backgrounds and are pursuing different majors. They all were able to connect their studies at USI to what they experienced in Puerto Rico.
“As a biology major, it was neat to get to see the difference between the fauna and flora of Southern Indiana compared to Puerto Rico,” says Hardy. “I also took away so much historical information, as well as cultural differences. I enjoyed learning about both of those.”
The five days the group visited were mixed with fun as well as education. Students took Bomba dance lessons, learning about the national dance and music of the island, and explored the El Yunque National Forest, which President Teddy Roosevelt visited during his presidency. A tour of the Old San Juan Prison and kayaking through a mango grove were also on the list of activities. Students also had the opportunity to partake in the tastes of the local food scene.
“Several of the students tried a traditional dish of Puerto Rico called mofongo, which is mashed plantains with various items like seafood, pork or vegetarian options. There were tostadas, too, and they all tried something new,” says Jaramillo Zungia. “There was a lot of cultural immersion. They [students] were all super excited.”
“I really liked hiking in the national forest,” adds Hardy. “It was interesting to just experience so much while we were there.”
The trip had an impact on all involved—from the students experiencing travel and different cultures to the counselors seeing students benefit from the trip.
“The greatest thing about the trip was just watching the students grow,” says Jaramillo Zungia. “Some began the trip scared to even get on the plane, and at the end, they were ready to move to Puerto Rico or travel more after graduating. The trip definitely had an impact on them.”
To get a first-hand look at USI students’ experience in Puerto Rico, check out the Zion Leadership Group’s video detailing the trip below:
To learn more about Student Support Services, visit usi.edu/university-division/student-support-services.