Hundreds of high school students packed into the Russell Union Ballroom on Georgia Southern University’s campus Saturday.

They took part in the first-ever Southeastern Georgia TRIO Day, hosted jointly by Georgia Southern, Savannah State University and Concerted Services Inc., a community action agency serving 18 southeast Georgia counties. The last Saturday in February is observed as National TRIO Day in recognition of the federally funded programs designed to help students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds succeed in high school, college and beyond.

What is TRIO, and what effect does it have?

The keynote speaker, Mario Ball, told high school students from across the region attending the event just what TRIO programs did for him. In fact, Ball’s resume itself is a good testimony.

Ball graduated from Morehouse College and Georgia Tech with degrees in applied physics and biological engineering. He gained experience with agencies such as NASA and companies such as Kimberly-Clark. He was recognized this year as No. 2 out of 209 managers in Stryker Orthopedics, a medical device company, and is ready to start his own medical device sales and distribution services business.

After being introduced with that resume, Ball quipped, “I guess I sound like somebody important.” He attributed his success in large part to TRIO.

“First and foremost, I want to let you guys know that I’m one of you,” said Ball, emphasizing his Millen roots. “Just a few years ago, I was in your same seat — Saturday afternoon, here at TRIO Day, listening to someone potentially lecture about their accomplishments on what TRIO has done for them.”

He referred to a Dateline NBC episode that aired in 2011 spotlighting Millen, which at the time had one of the highest unemployment rates in Georgia, as “the town that jobs forgot.” While the negative portrayal of his hometown dismayed him, it did remind him of the limited resources available there.

“Coming from a background like that, resources are extremely limited,” Ball said. “I would also say, from an academic standpoint, we have to take it into our own hands to achieve and attain the knowledge that we need in our life.”

TRIO programs are ones that young people “should align ourselves with,” he told the students, “as I have.”

Ball said TRIO’s Upward Bound Math and Science summer program at Morehouse dramatically changed his life.

“It was the first time I ever left home,” he said. “First time I have ever been outside of Millen on my own, living for six weeks on campus at Morehouse. That was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done — most challenging for my parents, as well. But I would also say that it was probably one of the greatest decisions I have made.”

That summer program is what convinced Ball that he wanted to be a biomedical engineer. Even afterward, he wasn’t sure what he would have to do in college to attain that goal, but it kept him focused the rest of his time in high school and on into college.

“I wanted to walk a different path. I wanted to do something different than I had seen growing up,” he said. “And I charge you guys to think about that in the same way.”

The Georgia Southern event also featured a panel discussion in which four TRIO alumni shared how their experience in TRIO programs impacted them, a step show by members of the Georgia Southern chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and a dance show by the Gator Girls, organized by Concerted Services.

Also, Carolyn Crume-Blackshear, the Educational Talent Search director for Concerted Services, presented a resolution to Dr. Joyya Smith, the director of Educational Opportunity Programs at Georgia Southern. The resolution was from the mayor and City Council of Statesboro, signed by Mayor Jan Moore, proclaiming Saturday as “Educational Talent Search and Upward Bound Day” in conjunction with National TRIO Day.

Jason Wermers may be reached at 912.489.9431.