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Janice Wiggins
Groups Student Support Program

George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Thursday, October 16, 2008

IU Groups program marks 40 years of offering 'support that embraces the whole sense of community'

Program helps first-generation students from all racial and economic backgrounds

Oct. 16, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Before Carrie and Marvin Williams heard about the Groups program at Indiana University, neither believed they would be able to attend a major research university such as IU.

Herman B Wells with Groups students

The late IU Chancellor Herman B Wells enjoyed meeting with Groups students in 1998.

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Carrie's father worked in a foundry near her home in East Chicago, Ind., and her mother worked as a domestic in people's homes and later as a nurse's aide. Marvin's prospects for attending college were even more challenging for his parents -- a 30-year foundry worker and a clerk for a local bedspread maker -- because he also had a twin brother and a younger brother.

"We probably would not have had an opportunity to go to school because of the cost and our economic situation at the time," said Marvin, a member of the 1974 freshman class of Groups and a 1979 graduate with a degree in public administration from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. "We knew we had the capabilities and the desire."

Carrie, his wife, added, "Groups opened the door for me to go to college. There was a desire from my parents for me to be able to further my education, but I don't think we knew exactly how to go about it . . . (Groups) was the ticket for me to be able to get into school. It was the saving grace for us."

Instead of following her father into one of the steel mills, she has worked with students as a speech therapist in the Richmond Community Schools for more than a quarter century, putting to use her 1978 bachelor's degree from IU. Marvin is a clinician at Reid Hospital and Healthcare Services.

The Richmond couple plan to be among other alumni of the IU program that has served nearly 10,000 young people from under-represented populations -- including many who were the first in their families to attend college -- who are gathering for a 40th anniversary reunion on the Bloomington campus Oct. 24-26.

Groups Students

By the 1970s, the Groups program was well established.

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Groups Student Support -- known affectionately to many as "Groups" -- is a federally funded program designed to help specially selected students from the time they complete an application to attend IU until they accept a diploma at graduation.

The program was established in 1968 to address low college attendance rates among first-generation minority students at IU. Today, eligible students also include those with limited financial resources and people with disabilities from all racial and economic backgrounds.

"I'm excited because this is a showcase," said William H. Wiggins Jr., professor emeritus of African American and African Diaspora studies and folklore and ethnomusicology, who first came to IU in 1969. "It gives us all a chance to see what good has been done and it reflects positively on all involved."

"Our Groups program has enriched the lives of many who otherwise might have found a university education unattainable," added IU President Michael McRobbie. "Many of its alumni have told us how the program has made a difference in their lives, beyond getting an IU education. Today, many of those same IU alumni are contributing to the lives of others as educators, leaders, executives, attorneys, ministers and artists. We're celebrating their achievements and the deeply committed people at IU who helped so many achieve their dreams."

The theme of this year's event is "Celebrating the Spirit of Our Alumni and Supporting the Dreams of Our Students." The schedule of events will include a bus tour of historic African American landmarks in Bloomington, the unveiling of a historical marker at the site of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity (which was founded at IU) and the dedication of a memorial for IU student Thomas Atkins, the Big Ten's first African American student body president. There also will a premiere of a documentary showing excerpts from past Groups theater productions and a Greek step show.

Groups and IU alumnus Dennis Hayes (B.S., '74, J.D. , '77 IU School of Law-Indianapolis), former interim president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), will speak on Oct. 25 at the awards banquet, where the second class of the program will be honored along with its retiring director, Janice L. Wiggins.

McRobbie with Groups students

Groups student Ellis Dumas (left) has lunch with President Michael McRobbie at The Market at the IMU during McRobbie's first day on the job in 2007.

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In honor of the first cohort of 43 Groups participants, IU is inviting more than 40 21st Century Scholars and other middle school students from Indianapolis for an overnight visit to the university. They will tour the campus, meet IU President McRobbie and alumni from Groups, visit the La Casa and Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center and take in the homecoming parade and football game.

Origins of the Groups program emerged from an effort in the spring of 1968 by IU Bloomington administrators, faculty and students to recruit African American and Latino students in eight high schools in northwest Indiana.

"The mood of the country was not a positive one at that time," Wiggins recalled. "A month before they left, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated . . . and a few days before their May 8 departure, the nation was rocked by the release of the Kerner Commission Report, whose members concluded that America was becoming two nations, separate and unequal."

With the strong support of late IU Chancellor Herman B Wells, professors Donald Gray and James Holland and IU students Pat Patterson and Vernon Smith (now a state representative), 43 minority students from Gary and East Chicago enrolled at the university as part of Groups' first class.

Since that first class, subsequent groups of students in the program have come to Bloomington for six weeks of pre-college orientation in the summer. More than 250 students are admitted each year.

Program director Janice Wiggins said students in the program are strong contributors to campus life and to society after graduation. She notes that her program also includes students who participate in IU's Wells, Honors and Hudson-Holland scholarship programs.

"There may still be some perception about the academic caliber of our students, but that's a misnomer," she said. "When you see these students they are competitive.

"Many students want to become part of this program because of the support that is given," Wiggins continued. "We're talking about first-generation, low-income students who have not been exposed to the whole area of higher education. They come to this campus, which is a highly-respected research institution, and even though we have a diverse group of students coming here, it still is something that is foreign to many of these students. They need the support -- it's not just academic support -- you have to give these kids the kind of support that embraces the whole sense of community."

Her program has been recognized four times for having the "best practice" for serving freshmen. A recent U.S. Department of Education report ranked the Groups program third in the nation for the number of participants who were retained at higher education institutions or graduated from them.

Nearly 85 percent of all participants in Groups persist from one academic year to the next or graduate and 91 percent are considered in good academic standing.

The Williams couple, who married after meeting at IU, now have a son studying journalism at IU Bloomington. Marvin's younger brother, another Groups alumnus and the chief financial officer for the city of Indianapolis' Department of Capital Asset Management, has a daughter here majoring in sports medicine. She also represented IU and the Big Ten as a student trainer for the USA Olympic Team in Bejing 2008.

"It's sort of that next step," Marvin said. "They're no longer the non-traditional students, but they're from households of professionals who are college-trained and who have an appreciation for the importance of an education."