First-generation college student from a small farming town serves the college that changed her life
By KELLY STILES | The Arkadelphian
As a first-generation college student from a small farming town, Nicole Porchia dedicates her life to helping college students succeed, much like she was mentored during her time as a student at Ouachita Baptist University.
“I am very appreciative of my parents, who exemplified great work ethics and sacrificed to help me and my brother pursue an education beyond high school,” said Porchia, now the director of Ouachita’s Academic Success Center.
Her parents, retired mechanic Manuel Stuart and retired banker Trenace Stuart, raised her on a farm in Prescott. It was not unusual for her and her older brother to arrive home from school and immediately change into farming clothes.
“Growing up in a rural area with few opportunities I have always been passionate about exploring options beyond the ones directly around me,” said Porchia.
While attending Prescott High School, she was given the opportunity to spend six weeks on OBU’s campus where she fell in love with the university. This was made possible through TRiO’s Upward Bound outreach program to encourage first-generation students.
“[Ouachita] was not a part of our financial plan,” Porchia said. “I thought I’d never be able to make it.”
With determination to make her educational dream come to fruition, Porchia started applying for college scholarships in 10th grade. Hard work and support from her parents and TRiO made her OBU dream possible. What’s more, she worked in the TRiO program as a tutor and mentor during her undergraduate years, giving back to the organization that meant so much to her. For her junior and senior years, she was also a student hall director for the OC Bailey dormitories.
Working for TRiO, Porchia found her calling in helping students prepare for college. Upon speaking with one of her mentors, she realized that she wanted to help others have the experience that she gained in college. After graduating from OBU with an undergraduate degree in mass communications, minoring in business administration, she immediately went on to obtain her masters degree in higher education administration from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, while working there as a graduate assistant.
“[My job] is walking alongside students like those mentors walked alongside me,” Porchia said.
Some beloved mentors from her time as an OBU student include former president of OBU Dr. Rex Horne; the aforementioned Poole; the entire TRiO staff; Dr. Keldon Henley, vice president of institutional advancement and chief of staff; Dr. Lewis Shepherd, vice president of OBU; Dr. Bryan McKinney, dean of the business school; Dr. Jeff Root, dean of the school of humanities, and his wife, Dr. Deborah Root, director of assessment and institutional research; and many others.
“My style of mentorship comes from each of the things I loved about being mentored,” Porchia said.
After earning her master’s degree, Porchia started working for TRiO full time as a retention advisor at the University of Arkansas in Fort Smith. During this time, she became engaged to her now husband, Reggie Porchia, who works for the Social Security Administration. They decided to move back to the Arkadelphia area to be closer to family, where they are now raising two children, a six-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter.
Soon after her new job search began, she received a call from former Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Stan Poole asking if she would be interested in coming back to OBU to help start the Academic Success Center. Porchia accepted the position without hesitation in Jan. 2012.
“I hope that when I mentor students, there is something about what I do that shines the light of Christ,” Porchia said.
The Academic Success Center became responsible for tutoring, success coaching, academic probation, and providing direct support to students struggling with college. When the center first opened, its employees consisted of Porchia and two part-time workers. The program has grown to include five full-time employees, including Porchia.
“I have seen firsthand how shaping the lives of college students in and out of the classroom and offering social and emotional support through mentorship is crucial to their success,” Porchia said. “The conversations in our office may not always be happy-go-lucky. There are times when I am challenging students and having difficult conversations about meeting their academic goals.”
In early 2016, Ouachita President Dr. Ben Sells asked Porchia to take an initiative on supporting diversity on the university’s campus by helping provide students of color with the tools necessary to succeed in college. She became not only the director of the Academic Success Center, but also the director of Multicultural Student Programs. The increase in minority enrollment and the program’s expansion led to the funding of a full-time director’s position in 2021.
“That was a wonderful experience,” Porchia said. “I am still able to serve MSP in other capacities.”
Porchia serves as a co-sponsor for MORE (Multicultural Organization Reaching Equality) and La Fuerza, an organization meant to foster and support Hispanic culture at OBU. She also teaches classes, with some of her most recent being study skills courses, and OBU’s freshman introduction course called “OBU Connections.”
“Whatever you do, do it with passion, do it with love, do it with loyalty,” Porchia said.
In her spare time, Porchia volunteers on the Arkadelphia Promise Scholarship board and for the Perritt Parent Teacher Children Committee. She attends Greater Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Arkadelphia and enjoys gardening and relaxing on the farm.
“If you had asked me when I graduated from high school ‘do you want to get your doctorate degree?’ I would have laughed and said no,” she said.
Porchia will graduate in May with her doctorate degree in higher education administration from the University of Southern Mississippi. Her doctorate research is geared toward finding student success strategies for marginalized student populations.
“I hope that by achieving my goal of a doctorate degree, students can see that as an inspiration to them,” Porchia said.
Each year at OBU, the school performs a “Grad Check,” asking upcoming graduates about their experience attending the university. Porchia will often receive emails congratulating her for being mentioned in a Grad Check as an encouraging mentor.
“At the end of the day, this is not a job. It’s a ministry,” Porchia said.