“Never forget to help one another,” said Tha Dah Hser, when asked about her advice to new college students. Born and raised in a refugee camp in Thailand, Hser came to the U.S. with her family when she was 13 years old.

“I wanted to come to the U.S. for a better education and to have a better life,” said Hser, who earned her associate degree at Highline College in the spring of 2015.

“I was born in the Mae Sot district of Thailand, but my ethnicity is Karen,” she said, noting that the Karen people live mainly in Burma (Myanmar). “I came to Seattle in August 2007 as a refugee. My goal is to one day go back to my country and help my people.”

Tha Dah Hser

Tha Dah Hser


Helping others has been a constant theme for Hser. While at Highline, she served as a TRiO Student Ambassador, a mentor in the Burmese community and a member of the Honors Leadership Team. Her passion for helping others earned her a Leadership 1000 scholarship — worth $5,000 a year for up to four years — which she will use to study social work at the University of Washington beginning in the fall.

Being of service to others while in college was important to Hser. She experienced firsthand how challenging it can be for a first-generation college student to adapt and succeed in postsecondary education.

“When I had a question or concern about school, I would always ask advice from a TRiO program adviser. There is no one in my family who I can ask for help because they do not have higher education experience,” she said.

Strategies for Success

Highline formed its TRiO Student Support and Retention Services program in 2010 after receiving a five-year, $1.1 million federal grant. One of the main goals of the federal funding is to help students from groups traditionally underrepresented in postsecondary education improve their chances of graduating from college.

Toni Castro

Toni Castro

The program is designed for first-generation students like Hser — whose parents did not complete a baccalaureate degree — as well as students from low-income households or those with a disability.

“First-generation students have tremendous potential to succeed in college but are often not equipped with the tools to be successful,” said Toni Castro, Vice President for Student Services at Highline College. “Forming study groups, managing time, building relationships with faculty, and utilizing college resources and service are all important aspects of being successful in college. The strategies and interventions we can provide through TRiO help create a more equitable and engaging experience for first-generation students, giving them opportunities to develop important skills and knowledge to persist through graduation.”

Through TRiO, students receive additional support services to increase persistence and degree completion rates and help them transfer to baccalaureate programs. Services include individualized tutoring, mentorship, academic and financial advising, career and transfer preparation, instruction-based programming and other supports to help them achieve their goals.

Those types of services can be especially important for students like Hser, for whom English is not their native language.

“Starting to speak another language at the age of 13 was not easy. To be able to compete with other students, I have to work twice as hard as them,” said Hser.

The help she received through TRiO, together with her persistence and positive attitude that seemed to infect those around her, made succeeding at Highline a reality.

“My advice to all students is that no matter what happens, just keep on trying. Someday you will fall, but someday you will be rewarded. If I can do it, you can do it.”

An Ambassador for Achievement

Hser made the most of her time in the program, participating in numerous TRiO-related events, activities and services. During her second year at Highline, she served as a TRiO Student Ambassador.

“As a Student Ambassador, I really enjoyed meeting new students and sharing the information that made a difference in my school experience,” said Hser, who would tell others how TRiO helps students keep on track with their studies and prepares them for a four-year college or university.

Hser credits TRiO courses and program advisers with helping guide her on the right path to pursue a four-year degree. But she is also a believer in TRiO because it brings together a cohort of students, many of whom are first-generation like she is. Being part of the program allowed Hser to “meet with other TRiO members and share personal school experiences with one another and help out each other.”

Highline annually averages 16,500 students who attend for a variety of reasons, including to complete high school or learn English. Of the students attending for postsecondary education during the 2013–14 academic year, 5,220 were first generation, 2,481 were low income, and 176 were low income and had a disability.

TRiO program staff includes (left to right) Chris Panganiban, Susie Chavez, Ay Saechao and Bopha Cheng

TRiO program staff includes (left to right) Chris Panganiban, Susie Chavez, Ay Saechao and Bopha Cheng

The effectiveness of the TRiO program prompted Highline to apply for the grant again in 2015, which it was awarded due in large part to the college’s success in helping students. Looking at the first two cohorts of Highline’s TRiO participants — the 173 students who joined the program during the 2010–11 and 2011–12 academic years — graduation and transfer rates were nearly three times greater than the national average. Historically, 33 percent of first-generation and low-income students graduate from two-year institutions and only 18 percent both graduate from two-year institutions and transfer to four-year institutions. For Highline’s first two cohorts of TRiO participants, 62 percent graduated and 48 percent graduated and successfully transferred to a four-year university.

“Though our accomplishments are laudable, the larger goal of closing the opportunity gap is far ahead of us,” said Ay Saechao, Director of Highline’s TRiO Student Support and Retention Services program.

Saechao noted that across the U.S., those Americans with the most money — those in the top 25 percent — have earned 80 percent of all bachelor’s degrees.

“We believe that socioeconomic status should not determine destiny,” he said. “We intend to see TRiO students graduate from Highline and earn their bachelor’s degree at the same rate as those who come from more privileged communities.”

New Grant to Help New Students

As of May 2015, 362 students have participated in Highline’s TRiO program. With its new grant, Highline plans to serve a total of 145 students each year, which includes new and returning students. The college will receive $220,000 each of the next five years to fund the program.

“As part of our plan for these next five years, we plan to share and pilot TRiO promising practices to scale up the model of success for other students at Highline,” said Castro.

The extra support that students receive through TRiO is the kind of help that breaks down barriers to college success. For Hser, that help is likely to go a long way, both in her life and the lives of others.

“I want to earn a master’s degree in social welfare and travel to Burma as a volunteer,” said Hser.

Questions about the TRiO program? Contact Ay Saechao at (206) 592-3303 or asaechao@highline.edu or Toni Castro at (206) 592-3351 or tcastro@highline.edu.