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Center for Student Success and Services strives to increase reach, visibility

First things first: CSSS stands for the Center for Student Success and Services. It was formerly known as the Education Department. Some in the Tribe still refer to it that way, but the name changed in 2016.

Names and acronyms aside, CSSS spins a lot of plates for Tribal students and their families.

The department has 42 employees and five programs that service up to 1,700 students in any given year. Students are spread out on reservation, off-reservation and across the country.

The biggest of the five programs is K-12. Advisers make sure everything is in order for students, whether they are attending a Tribal school, charter school or private institution.

The other programs are higher education (students in college, technical school, adults earning their GED), tutoring, library programs and Tribal professional development (which include work experience programs).

Administration of the Tribal scholarship program is a big part of – but certainly not all – of what CSSS does.

CSSS director Randy Budde said one of the reasons for the name change in 2016 was because of the images “Education Department,” conjures – as in, Big Brother is watching.

“[We’re the] department that tracks students’ truancy and gets Tribal members in trouble,” Budde said. “The department that denies students access to private schools based on their low GPAs … that processes payments to schools. And yes, in a way, the CSSS department still does these things, but it’s not our favorite part of the job.”

He said the favorite part of the job is meeting Tribal members face-to-face and sharing ideas to find the perfect educational fit.

Sarah-Joy Somarriba is a CSSS higher education academic and career adviser who helps students find that fit. She’s been in the position for two years.

“My biggest purpose is to help people live their best life – to discover what career satisfaction means for them and help them craft their legacy,” Somarriba said. “I do this by getting to know the student on an individual level through MBTI (Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator) career assessments and laying out career pathways that help navigate through the academics needed to pursue their path.”

Somarriba also provides job shadowing, resume help, internship processing and student marketing and branding.

Say hello again

Alvaro Perez, assistant director, said CSSS has tried to reintroduce itself to the Tribe in recent months. Perez has been at the department for about one and a half years, starting out as the higher education manager.

“This year we’ve been working toward getting more information out, toward getting ourselves out there,” he said. “For a while there we were kind of in the Dark Ages. We’re now in an awakening. A lot of people don’t know the things that we do, who we are, things that we’re doing, the successes that we’ve had.”

Perez said sometimes the focus is on what CSSS isn’t doing.

“I think that there’s so much good that outweighs the bad, so we’re trying to figure out how to get that stuff out there,” Perez said.

For example, CSSS has moved from producing a newsletter strictly about higher education to an overall department one; it is updating the CSSS website more often; and its social media presence has increased – recently launching a Facebook page.

Perez wants to start highlighting students and staff through social media channels in 2019.

Budde said other changes he’s seen recently include a willingness of not only the CSSS department, but many Tribal departments, to work together. The collaborative effort means working directly with Tribal liaisons at each reservation.

“I think the relationships that [CSSS] has built with our educational partners has flourished,” Budde said. “In the future I see [CSSS] as the department that works directly with the community members and our educational partners to find new ways of creating the future leaders of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.”

Budde was previously a Broward County Public Schools teacher, associate director of admissions at Florida International University and a director of the Kaplan Test Prep.

On the road again

It would be incorrect to envision CSSS staff sitting all day in big, stuffy offices staring at computer screens. Much of what the department does require being able to pivot for students and traveling to meet folks.

For example, even though the main offices are on the Hollywood Reservation, Somarriba has met with students who don’t live close to Hollywood through methods like Skype and FaceTime.

“It doesn’t matter where they are,” she said. “We have a family right now in Iowa, a set of triplets, the moment the mom found out that we are a service to them, they reached out to us for everything – phone calls, setting up a college tour – they are even looking to apply for other scholarships and help with essays. We’ve done a lot through email.”

Somarriba has met with other students off site in Florida.

“I was at a University of Miami Starbucks last week to help a student. I was there for two to three hours at 8 a.m. helping her out with the transition to UM,” she said. “And I might go to Broward College to help a student with their classes, so I kind of step out of my office quite frequently – at least with the students locally who know me because of their proximity to me, she said.”

“That’s one of the things we’re trying to do is not set any limits,” added Perez. “If there were limits in the past we want to get rid of that.”

Stagnant isn’t a word people associate with Perez either.

He recently attended a Tribal community meeting in Orlando and will go to other meetings, graduations and events at all the reservations and across the state.

“There’s at least, if not in the thousands then in the hundreds, Tribal members who don’t live on the reservation,” he said.

But, there’s more!

CSSS organizes an education and career expo, usually every year. It’s the marquee event for the department.

“That’s where the education team can kind of shine and bring in presenters and vendors and resources for the Tribe,” Perez said.

CSSS is currently sponsoring its annual Close Up Program which will take place in Washington, D.C., from March 2-9. The program is for Tribal member high school students grades 9-12.

Students learn and explore current issues facing Native Americans. The deadline to apply is Jan. 4, 2019.

CSSS has also been promoting its “meet and greet” opportunities on the Brighton Reservation, and for the first time in Immokalee – on Jan. 10, 2019, at the community center.

The meet and greets are designed for students and family to get updates from CSSS staff. Representatives from colleges attend, too, like Keiser University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Grand Canyon University and Indian River State College.

And students can get help with their homework as well. CSSS has been promoting the service in Brighton, recently. In addition, GED tutoring is now available in Big Cypress.

Look toward 2019

Budde said it’s not always easy for Tribal families to share their educational goals and challenges with a CSSS adviser, but he hopes they will.

“It takes time to build that kind of trust and rapport. But over the past three years CSSS has maintained a very stable staff that enjoys working with Tribal families,” he said. “Instead of being the old Education Department, we want to be known as a place where families can seek guidance and encouragement.”

He said he wants CSSS to be a place where students feel safe to study, where they can access tutoring or simply be a place to hang out and read a book.

“Even though we know we’ve been here and there’s been a good amount of consistency the past two, three years, a lot of people don’t know us,” Perez said. “We’re here, we’re not going anywhere.”

For more information, go to csss.semtribe.com.

Several members of the CSSS crew in Hollywood gathered for a photo before the Christmas holiday. Bottom row from left to right are Shayla English – homework help/GED tutor; Raysa De La Paz – CSSS office manager; and Kajir Harriot – student success coach. Second row from left to right are Sasha Rigg – homework help/GED tutor; Tracey Walton – Hollywood K-12 program manager; Unethia Brown – Hollywood K-12 adviser assistant; Kerlande Patterson – TPD program supervisor; and Charvelle McClendon – tutoring program supervisor. Third row from left to right are (back row, left side) Charlotte Urejonna – tutor coordinator; Randall Budde – CSSS director; and Yvette Payne – Hollywood K-12 adviser. Back row right to left are Alvaro Perez – CSSS assistant director and Melissa Forges – higher education program manager. (Photo Damon Scott)
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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.

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