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Skidmore College

OP’s Kelli Rouse and team create a 'home away from home' for students

April 18, 2024
by Angela Valden

Skidmore Opportunity Program Director Kelli Rouse is an advocate for students in every sense of the word — from crunching numbers and ensuring that support services are funded, to hosting cooking classes that demonstrate how attainable it can be to prepare a delicious, nutritious meal. You might catch her wheeling a cart full of her beautiful cakes to the Wyckoff Center, or you might see her mentoring a student one-on-one in the Opportunity Program’s Case Center office. 
Rouse found her calling while a college student herself, working with a student access program in Arkansas. There, she discovered a path to a career that is deeply meaningful for her: providing experiences to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them. 
We sat down with her to talk about what makes OP a “home away from home” for the approximately 145 students it serves across all four class years, and about how she and her team listen to the needs of students and design support that helps them to grow and thrive.

Q. When did you join Skidmore and what is your background and experience?

I’ve been director here at Skidmore since September 2016.  
I started out tutoring in TRIO (federal student services program) for years while at the University of Arkansas. After I got my master’s in higher education, I stayed in TRIO professionally for a while. Once I moved back to this area, I learned about the state-funded HEOP and OP programs. I started as an assistant director at Union College, then became the director at Maria College, and then came here. I just love it.

Q. What do you do in your role as director of OP?

Of course, overseeing and managing the staff and the budget. We have budget lines and funds from many different places, so I have to coordinate those efforts and make sure they’re used appropriately. We are partially funded through the New York State Education Department, and we just received our five-year grant from them, which is amazing, but that does come with quite a bit of paperwork. We also get funding from an outside source called the Kettering Fund out of Dayton, Ohio. We have an endowment from them, and we leave three to four spots per year for students from Ohio.

Even though I’m director, I still like to keep my pulse on what’s happening with the students. I currently have about 25 advisees who are pursuing health professions. I advise them to make sure they’re on the right track and to help them figure out next steps. 
I still like to do some programming — again, just trying to keep the pulse of the students. And I serve on several committees as a part of my role, including the Committee on Intercultural and Global Understanding with other administrators around campus.

Q. Why is this work so meaningful to you? 
To see that interaction with our OP students from day one, or when they come for the summer program or the first day of classes, to when they graduate and even beyond, and seeing that growth and that maturation and how much they evolve and come into themselves — that’s amazing. I think that’s what I love and that’s why it’s so meaningful. 

Q. What is the beauty of the Opportunity Program at Skidmore?

It’s family. It’s home. We try to make it home away from home. It’s a place where you can come and not be judged. You can be yourself. You can ask questions. You can take the time to figure things out and figure out who you are, and it’s okay. It’s encouraged.

And then it’s also a place where we’re going to push. Oh yeah, we’re going to push. “Yeah, I know, that was really tough. But we’re scholars here, right? We believe in you, you’ve got this. What can we do differently? How can you progress?”

Q. What does holistic support look like to you? 
I’m going to ask you, of course, about classes. How are classes going now? What did you get on that exam? Did you go see a tutor? Did you speak to your professor? How did you study? When did you start studying? How’s your time management?

Of course I’m going to focus on the academics — that’s why we’re here — but it’s also going to be, “Do you and your roommate get along? How’s that? How are you sleeping? When’s the last time you talked to mom or dad? When’s the last time you ate a vegetable? I’ve seen you coming here with 8 gallons of Pepsi — just drink some water today?"

Often if students are not doing well outside of the classroom, it will trickle and find its way into the classroom. So let’s address that, let’s talk about that. Let’s figure out the best ways to support you.

Q. What does success look like to you? 
There are metrics that we have to provide to the College and the state, so we’re looking at persistence. We’re looking at retention. We’re looking at GPAs. We’re looking at graduation rates, of course. We have to think about all of that.

But then I also look at personal growth. The maturation. Just being open and just kind of soaking it all in. To me, that is complete success — students who are more comfortable with themselves and more confident in their abilities. They feel good about their own growth and process and progress.

Q. What kinds of programming does OP provide to students? 
We’re learning and listening to what the students’ needs are and trying to come up with programming that’s meaningful to them. 
A couple of the things we kept hearing over and over was that students — especially seniors — are getting ready to transition out and they’re like, “I don’t know how to do some basic things that I probably should. Nobody ever taught me how to do my taxes or how to negotiate a salary. Or why would I lease a car versus buying a car? And when I go to look for an apartment, why do I have to have all this money upfront? Or I have two job offers — how do I determine which one is better?” So we started a series called Adulting 101 and that’s been really, really popular. It’s geared toward seniors and juniors.

We also do a March Madness series on getting your resumes and cover letters together, interviewing skills, getting them prepared for internships. A lot of times we’ll partner with the Career Development Center. 
For our sophomores, we started a major declaration party. They have to declare in March of their sophomore year or they can’t register for classes, so we encourage them along the way. I have to sign off on all the forms, so I go in there with my pen and then we have a selfie wall where they can take “I declared” pictures. They decorate cookies with their major on it. So it’s just a celebration of like “Hey, this is a big deal. I’m really proud of you.” 
A program that I think is big for first years is talking about their expectation of their experience and their time here. And what does that transition look like? So we work with them a lot specifically about transitional issues. 
We also have a book club, and it’s very relaxed. There’s no judgment and instead encourages the students to read and have dialogue and conversation.

And every single month we have something called OP lunch. It’s an opportunity to get to know us (OP staff) as humans, not just administrators. So we go in there, we turn some music on, we let them choose what genre of music they want to listen to, and we have lunch. We just have a conversation.

Q. How does advocacy play a part in OP programming? 
Because we are partially funded by the New York State Education Department, we would head to the state Capitol and have our students speak to the legislators — so, advocacy. During the pandemic, everything went virtual, and so it sort of remains that fewer and fewer students are going. But since then, we’ve done it in different ways. We have a social media campaign and we can virtually speak to the legislators or their staffers, which has been really good for the students to be able to tell their own story of why OP is important and what it means to them.

But then we thought, how can we expand that? So one of the conversations we’ve had and actually turn into a workshop is about self-advocacy. Like, how do I advocate for myself in a job interview? It’s a skill set that I think you just don’t always naturally have.

Q. What would you say about your OP team? 

I’ve got a good team — pretty stacked. I love it. Everyone has a very specific role, but we also communicate all the time and come together all the time. I’ll say, “Hey, Meg. I was thinking about doing this. Let’s partner and do this program together. Or hey, Travis, you have to get on the road and do this. Do you need me to come along with you? Or, if you can’t make it to that fair, do you need me to tap in for you?” It's quite a bit of that. It has to be.

Q. How long have you been cooking and baking? 
Oh gosh, actually, I was baking as a kid. My mom is a great baker. My grandmother was phenomenal. But my great-grandmother was the best baker I think I’ve ever known. She got up and made homemade biscuits every single morning. I still actually have one of her Bundt pans. Yeah, so it’s in my blood. But I remember baking as a kid and being like, “Oh, this is cool,” but not really being into it probably until I was in my mid 20s or early 30s.

I feel like now I’ve gotten to be a little more comfortable and free to be like, “I might have a recipe to guide me, but I’m going to make it my own.” I love that about cooking. And then just know that yeah, you’re going to mess some things up. Like, “Oh, that was a fail. Well, I forgot that was on, that burned up.” You know, everybody does it, right? But just keep going.

A couple of clubs have asked me to do demonstrations or just cook for them. Or just bring food. Like red velvet cupcakes and banana pudding. “Sure, no problem.” And then the Cooking Club asked me to be their advisor. I was like, “Yeah, that’s awesome. I love it.”

Q. Do you also bring home-cooked food into the office?  

I do. So the one thing I’ve not learned to do is cook a little bit. My parents are here, and my sister and her husband and two kids, and my husband. So we still have family meals just about every Sunday. Because of that, I’ve never learned how to cook a little bit. That is just a skill I do not have. So a lot of times I’ll cook and my husband’s like, “Were you expecting an army?” I thought I pared it down, but apparently I didn’t. 

A lot of times our international students, especially if they’re here over breaks, just need a home-cooked meal and I’ll bring it here. And then sometimes I just get hit by the baking bug where I just can’t stop baking, but I can’t have it in the house because I’ll eat it too much. So I’ll bring it in here and the students are really happy to receive it. 

Skidmore’s Opportunity Program, among the first in New York state, celebrated 50 years of OP graduates in 2023.

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