February 2023 Staff Spotlight: Erica Calderon, Director, FOCUS Programs - TRIO, Division of Student Affairs

Erica Calderon

Erica Calderon knows first-hand the difference that any exposure to higher education can make for high school students, especially those who come from low-income backgrounds or whose parents did not attend college. She is the first in her family to earn a college degree and credits a high school counselor with opening her eyes to education beyond high school. And today, in her role as the Director of the university’s two federal TRIO programs—Upward Bound and Talent Search—she is making sure that nearby high school and middle school students can see a similar future for themselves. 

Read more about Erica Calderon.

What led you to this work?
When I graduated from college, I was working with high school students. I started out working in drug and alcohol case management through Catholic Charities here in Cleveland. Through that experience, I realized that I wanted to go back to school and get my masters in high school counseling. So I earned both of my undergraduate and graduate degrees at Cleveland State. 

Do you ever see any parallels between your experience as a high school student and the TRIO students?
I think that’s one of the reasons that I started working at TRIO. I was a low-income, first generation college student myself and I attended CMSD’s Lincoln West High School. In fact, my first job with the TRIO programs was at Cleveland State and I was actually recruiting students from Lincoln West for a year. That meant a lot to me. 

I’ve always tried to get students to see that I understand the path that they’re in. I try to tell them that I was there and I made it—and so can you.

One of the challenges we’ve had with COVID and with the job market is that students here and across the country seem to want to earn money quickly. It’s been harder to help them see the longer term benefits to an education when there’s an employer nearby who will pay you $18 an hour. 

How did college become something that was on your radar?
For me, it was a counselor at my high school who asked me, “Why are you not thinking about college? You have the grades to do it.” But I really hadn’t thought about it because my parents didn’t go to college and they were more focused on making sure that I graduated from high school. Plus, they didn’t know how to help me apply to college or how to go through the process. But my guidance counselor really encouraged me and showed me what I needed to do to apply. 

So, today, I see that as my role. I try to tell kids that they need to get out of the cycle of poverty and get an education. And I tell them that if their home environment isn’t the best, then even more reason to go away to school if they can. I always say that you have to do what’s necessary to get your degree so that you can have a better place in life later on. 

Without the intervention of your guidance counselor, do you think you would have pursued college on your own?
I think that some of the experiences I had in high school were helpful. At one point, I was able to stay on a college campus for a week and I was chosen to go to Washington DC for a trip, so both of those things opened my eyes. But the counselor pushing me really helped me to see that I could move toward a different path that was better for me.