A portrait of Rafael Orozco.
Rafael Orozco directs CU Denver's TRIO programs.

CU Denver’s TRIO Program Supports Students to Make Education Work for All

Each year, the program helps 25 McNair Scholars earn real-world research experience and prepare for doctoral studies.

December 12, 2023

For many students, making the decision to earn a college degree is an investment in their future and a first step in building the life they want. And CU Denver knows that to make education work for them—for all learners—there are many resources, programs, and supports that can help them find success in and out of the classroom. From award-winning on-campus housing to affordable meal plans and the opportunity to learn at the state’s only public urban research university, CU Denver is dedicated to supporting students at every step in their academic journey.   

One of those supports is the federally funded TRIO program. This federal initiative was established by the U.S. Congress to support low-income Americans who enroll in and graduate from college. TRIO programs are funded across the country through Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965. CU Denver has two grant-funded programs: Student Support Services and McNair Scholars.   

Rafael Orozco joined CU Denver in November to direct the university’s TRIO programs. Orozco, who earned his undergraduate degree from Colorado Mesa University and his master’s from DU, is a proud alum of a TRIO program. He has dedicated his career to supporting students on their academic paths. Now, at CU Denver, he’s continuing that work. We sat down with him to learn more about the programs and their impact.   

Right before this, you worked at Colorado Mesa University and directed the same TRIO program you participated in as a student. Tell us more about that.   

It was cool to see the full 360 experience where I was a participant, a staff, and then a director of the very same program—all within 10 years. When people say TRIO works, it really does work. I’m a proud product of TRIO.   

Tell us more about CU Denver’s funding.   

We have two grants: Student Support Services and the McNair Scholars Program. For Student Support Services, we are currently in year four of the five-year grant, so we’ll be writing for the grant next summer to hopefully be refunded for another five years. For the McNair program, we are in year two of five.  

Give us the 20,000-foot take: What are the TRIO programs at CU Denver?

The purpose of TRIO is to get students an education. We work with first-generation students, income-eligible students, students that have an academic need, and/or students that have a documented disability. If any student on campus fits any of those criteria (you don’t have to meet all), you can apply for the Student Support Services TRIO program.   

We know these students can struggle, and the purpose of the program is to really help them succeed in achieving that four-year degree. Here, at CU Denver, we offer a lot of help: a lot of academic workshops, skill-building workshops, time management workshops, writing workshops—really anything that a student needs. We can provide that for them. We can do academic advising. We have a peer mentor program as well. We can serve up to 165 students with this program.   

For the McNair program, we can serve up to 25 students. The McNair program is dedicated to helping students get ready for PhD programs. It is heavy on research: presenting your research, getting a faculty mentor, and learning what it’s like to apply for a master’s program and then your PhD program. It can be intimidating to apply for any type of program. We provide fee waivers for some applications, as well, because of the network that we have with other McNair programs. Again, it is [about addressing] what the students need and providing that for them.  

It sounds like CU Denver’s programs support students throughout their academic journeys. Tell me more about the McNair Scholars Program.   

A big component of the McNair program is our summer research institute, where we have a stipend for students to stay on campus, to attend workshops all summer, and to be working on their research topic. They have seminars every month where we really try to prepare them for the next level—what it is going to be like once you start working on your PhD. The program is really intense, and that’s why we only take 25 students. We’re really trying to dedicate our time to those 25 students.  

In July, the McNair Scholars attended a conference at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], where a lot of the students presented their research. We really try to get them experience, saying “Hey, go present your research at a small conference so that when you are ready to defend your PhD, you’ll feel more comfortable.” So, just trying to expose them to the real world as much as we can.  

That’s a lot of experience!  

And that’s just part of it. They have faculty support and that’s a networking piece, too. That’s a potential job once they graduate.   

So, at CU Denver, TRIO provides wrap-around services to help contribute to a student’s success?   

Right. And in the CU Denver community, TRIO does have a lot of support. Part of my job is to keep developing relationships and building new relationships, because it does take a lot of effort. We partner with other departments to do workshops or seminars for us. We’re a small team of four.  

Finally, can you tell me a little more about how TRIO helped you—as an undergraduate—be successful?   

When I was in undergrad, I failed a class five times. It was a one-credit science class. And it was the last class that I needed to graduate. I was in the TRIO office, weekly, asking, ‘What do I need to do?’ and getting tutoring. If it wasn’t for TRIO, I don’t know that I would be here today. They are the ones that pushed me to finish that class and graduate so that I could go on and get my master’s. TRIO is a community, and I’m really proud to be part of that.