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SMC ETS Director Maria Kulka

SMC ETS Director Maria Kulka

SMC ETS Awarded $1.8 Million Over Five Years to Help Students Find College Path

Published on August 24, 2021 - 3 p.m.

The U.S. Department of Education Aug. 9 notified Southwestern Michigan College it received a $1.825 million Talent Search grant.

That’s $365,000 per cycle over five years, Sept. 1, 2021-Aug. 31, 2026, to help more students who would be the first members of their families to earn degrees to prepare for and to enroll in college.

This is Educational Talent Search’s 30th anniversary at SMC.

ETS Director Maria Kulka joined the program in the fall of 2016 and was promoted to her current position in December 2018. The Gaylord native previously spent a year at Dowagiac Middle School as the migrant aide after earning her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Ferris State University. She is currently working on her master’s degree in school counseling through Western Michigan University.

Though she never benefited from Talent Search, she was the type of first-generation student ETS exists to serve.

“No one in my family went to college,” Kulka said, “so no one ever talked to me about college. Thankfully, I had a coach who saw potential in me and asked what I was going to do because college wasn’t on my radar.”

When Kulka moved to Cass County, Bob and Hazel Crosbie happened to be her neighbors. Hazel had been the first ETS director in 1991.

“Bob came down on his tractor one day and said, ‘I know you have your teaching certificate. Did you see SMC’s job posting? You should apply.’ I had no idea what ETS was, but the job description sounded like something I’d be interested in because working with at-risk groups always interested me,” Kulka said. “It’s nothing I ever expected to get into because I was never exposed to it growing up, but I love this program because it’s about creating opportunities.”

“I had never gone on a college visit until senior year, when I was considering running at Ferris,” said Dowagiac’s cross country coach. Her high school team was enshrined in the Otsego County Sports Hall of Fame after winning a state title.

ETS “provides students with college visits in case they have never been to a college campus and had that experience,” Kulka said. “A lot of students have never been to Chicago before. When we went to Warren Dunes, some had never been to Lake Michigan.”

“Programs like this are so important,” Kulka said. “School counselors don’t have enough resources to talk to students about colleges and careers because a lot of their time is dedicated to scheduling and other stuff. Students need help figuring out what they want to do after high school so they’re prepared for the workforce.”

SMC ETS serves 750 students in grades 6-12 in Brandywine, Cassopolis, Dowagiac, Edwardsburg and Marcellus school districts. “We have 220 middle school students,” said Kulka, its fifth director.

Kulka oversees Marcellus, Volinia and Pathfinders, while Bethani Eichel works with Dowagiac and Cassopolis and Ally Harris focuses on Edwardsburg and Brandywine.

Eichel attended SMC as a dual-enrolled student and continued to her Associate in Applied Science Degree for Education Paraprofessional in 2013. In 2018, she completed her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies (K-8) from Western Governors University.

Harris also attended SMC, receiving her Associate in Applied Science Degree in Early Childhood Education in 2015. In 2017, she received her bachelor’s degree in child and family development from Western Michigan University.

One of the federal TRIO programs, Talent Search identifies and assists middle and high school students with the potential to succeed in higher education. At least two-thirds of students in each local Talent Search program are from low-income economic backgrounds and families in which neither parent has a bachelor’s degree.

Talent Search provides these students with counseling as well as information about college admissions requirements, scholarships and various student financial aid programs so they can better understand their educational opportunities and options.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 80 percent of Talent Search participants enroll in postsecondary institutions immediately following high school graduation. In FY2020, more than 309,000 students enrolled in 473 Talent Search projects across the United States.

Talent Search began in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

It was the second of eight federal TRIO programs authorized by the Higher Education Act to help college students succeed in higher education. Oscar-winner Viola Davis, for example, was exposed to acting in Upward Bound.

“As systemic inequality and financial hardship discourage students from succeeding in college, TRIO programs like Talent Search take on new importance because they continue to help students who are low-income and first-generation to earn college degrees,” said Maureen Hoyler, president of the non-profit Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) in Washington, D.C.