Kim Coke poses for a photo outside the Columbia House, home of TRiO Student Support Services at Columbia College. Photo by Columbia College Photographer & Graphic Designer Abigail Wade

Kim Coke sees a little bit of herself in each Columbia College student who walks through the front door of the Columbia House on the south end of main campus.

Coke is the new director of the college’s TRiO Student Support Services, a grant-funded program through the U.S. Department of Education designed to encourage eligible students to persevere and complete their degrees.

Coke, who has worked in Student Affairs at CC for more than 20 years, leads a dedicated team that supports first-generation students as well as those who meet federal income guidelines or have documented physical, learning or mental health disabilities. Eligible four-year Day Campus students receive free tutoring, mentoring and educational workshops in addition to career support.

“I think about what TRiO does for our students and I often think about how different my educational process may have looked had there been a program like that,” says Coke, who enrolled in college at the age of 23 to pursue a bachelor’s degree. “I wish I had a program like that.”

She has made it the mission of her career to provide support to students in similar situations.

Building relationships, witnessing students’ growth and helping them in their path to graduation brings a sense of purpose to every day, Coke says.

“It really does feel like a privilege to be able to do the work that I am doing,” Coke says.

The TRiO SSS program has impacted thousands of CC students over the course of the past two decades, says Dave Roberts, dean of Student Affairs.

“We are fortunate to have a dedicated, energetic leader like Kim guide the program moving forward,” Roberts says. “She truly is CC and is committed to seeing our students succeed during their time as part of our college community and long after they graduate.”

Coke earned her bachelor’s from the University of Missouri and began working at CC in 2000. She served as director of New Student Programs until 2017, when she became an advisor with TRiO SSS. She completed her Master of Arts in Teaching at CC in 2019.

Kim Coke, new director of TRiO Student Support Services at Columbia College, takes a selfie with students during an outing on Feb. 3, 2023, in St. Louis.

“All of that experience really fostered a great foundation for me of how to support students,” Coke says. “Not just through individual advising but connecting them to resources both on campus and off. The goal is really helping them to build a network, so even when they are finished with their school process, they are able to better manage life beyond college as well.”

Coke originally set out to be a park ranger in the National Park Service. That never came to fruition, but despite the unknowns of her future as she entered the workforce, her education created opportunities that led to a fulfilling career, she says.

No two people’s stories are the same and no two needs are the same, Coke says. TRiO works to understand the nuances of each student in order to provide personalized support.

“I want to help students understand that asking for help is not a weakness, but rather it’s maximizing your resources and building a brighter future for yourself,” Coke says.

Columbia College President Dr. David Russell, center, poses for a photo with students on Dec. 7, 2022, at the Columbia House, home of TRiO Student Support Services.

One of her priorities as director is to utilize her staff’s knowledge base to better inform the rest of the college community on how to best serve marginalized populations.

“I would love for us to be a voice in that kind of leadership on campus,” Coke says.

CC received a $1.38 million grant in 2020 to provide funding for TRiO SSS for five years. That was the fourth time the program has received a grant renewal since its establishment in 2001.

TRiO SSS serves at least 172 students each year and strives to support even more.

“Our goal is to get students to graduation in the least amount of time, with the least amount of debt, and with the maximum amount of support,” Coke says.