GVSU scholarship program helps to make college possible for first-generation students

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

The ability to pay for an education beyond high school is often the deciding factor for students and their families. Now a scholarship program in Battle Creek is taking that dilemma off the table.
 
The son of a restaurant server and a factory worker, Jonah Hurtado-Macias, one of six recipients of the 2020 scholarship, says he would have had limited options after graduating from Battle Creek Central High School and his dream of attending a four-year college would have remained just that – a dream.

“I believe I would have stayed at a community college. It would have been pretty expensive for my family to send me to a four-year college,” he says.

That all changed in 2020 when Hurtado-Macias became one of six recipients of the Battle Creek Public School Health and Teacher Education Pipeline Scholarship. Each of those selected were graduating seniors from Battle Creek Central High School who had expressed an interest in pursuing education, nursing, or health professions as they are now doing as students at Grand Valley State University.
Jonah Hurtado, a 2020 graduate of Battle Creek Central, plans on majoring in international business and with a minor in Spanish at Grand Valley State University. He is a recipient of a scholarship through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
The scholarship program is part of a $15.5 million grant awarded in 2019 to GVSU by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to partner with BCPS and transform education in the district. The partnership included the establishment of GVSU’s Battle Creek Regional Outreach Center at 8 W. Michigan Ave. that opened in November, 2019. Other aspects of the grant include partnering with BCPS to offer professional development programs and mentorship to teachers; establishing a teacher education pipeline program for classroom assistants; and arranging for BCPS middle and high school students to attend GVSU summer camps focused on STEM and health care.

Through the scholarship program, each recipient is receiving funding to cover tuition, fees, housing and dining, plus a book stipend -- essentially a full ride -- for eight semesters.

“Getting this scholarship is a big step not just for me but for my community, too,” says Hurtado-Macias, who is majoring in International Business and minoring in Spanish. “Not many Latinos in my community go on to college and finish. It’s important for my family and siblings too, but it also benefits the community. I feel like a role model for my friends.”

Some of those friends are teammates with soccer teams he played on, including a travel team he played with in his senior year. He says they are asking him about the scholarship and how to fill out the application.

Matthew Bozzo, a Career Navigator with the Outreach Center, says the inaugural group of recipients are becoming unofficial ambassadors for the scholarship program. He says he is currently in the recruitment phase and applications are now being accepted as part of the selection process to identify this year’s group of six recipients.

The scholarship was announced in mid-February, 2020. At the time, Bozzo says he had plans to do a lot of work to assist those who were applying. In mid-March, COVID-19 shut down in-person learning at schools and in-person services at the Outreach Center. Bozzo began finding alternative ways to assist the applicants, who were first-generation college students, and their families with everything from college essays to filling out the actual college application and the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

“One of the scholarship recipients was homeless and he had to do extra financial aid forms to prove he was homeless. He was living with a friend of his family who knew nothing about GVSU. They were concerned because they wanted to make sure he was safe and knew what he was doing,” says Bozzo who drove the family to the campus and gave them a tour.

“They asked really good questions about things like the dining hall and with COVID how he would get food. It was just simple things like that and for me and in my job I recognize that not everyone is a second- or third-generation college student. It’s scary. Part of my job is making them understand not only how to navigate the campus when they visit, but also what safety and health procedures are in place.

In Hurtado-Macias’ case there were translation issues and Bozzo says, “Jonah had to translate for his parents. It’s hard. Language barriers are a thing.”

COVID’s Impact

“We had announced the scholarship program in the school and kids were working on their applications and once COVID hit, we had parents who lost their jobs, and kids who had to help their parents out,” Bozzo says. “It was really just survival time.”

W.K. Kellogg FoundationWith the focus for many, especially those with limited financial means, on surviving the fallout from the pandemic, Bozzo says he received only six applications for the scholarship.

“A lot of them didn’t know much about GVSU, but they really wanted to go to a four-year college. Many didn’t think it could be a reality because of the financial costs,” he says. “Through the four years I’ve been working in college outreach and advising, that’s the biggest thing they say, it’s the financial piece. The fear of debt is so scary for them and their parents who don’t want them to take on that debt.”

This was the situation Dai’Mion Banks, among the six scholarship recipients, found herself in. Banks says she had been looking at different colleges, but in her senior year at Battle Creek Central, her mother told her she would not be able to afford the cost to send her to college. Her mother had previously taken out parental loans to put her two older siblings through school.

Banks had also received a scholarship offer from Western Michigan University, but it wasn’t close to the full ride she received to attend GVSU. Like her fellow recipients, she didn’t know much about GVSU and wasn’t completely sold on the idea of going there.

“Matt (Bozzo) was my tennis coach so I was already really close to him,” Banks says. “I really wasn’t interested in GVSU, but the other scholarship didn’t cover what I needed.”

Looking back, she says she is glad she took the scholarship because she can focus on her studies, instead of the debt she may otherwise have incurred.

“It means a lot. It’s worth it to go to college and not to have to worry about debt. It’s a big relief,” says Banks, who is working on a double major in Psychology and Nursing. “I’ve always liked helping people. My grandma was a nurse and I have a passion to help people mentally more than physically. I thought, ‘I might as well get the whole degree.’”

Bozzo says each of the recipients worked very hard throughout the application process and were highly motivated to earn a college degree. He says they were respected by their high school teachers, involved in extracurricular activities, and considered leaders by their peers.

To avoid what he refers to as the “summer melt” when “they have all of these golden plans, but once they’re out of that school environment, outside factors make them change their plans,” Bozzo kept in constant communication with them throughout the summer.

“I really wanted to make sure they didn’t give up on themselves,” he says. “I did four or five one-on-one calls with each of them to see how their summer jobs and plans were going. I was asking them if they had gotten some of their dorm supplies and signed housing contracts. Closer to when they moved onto campus, I wanted to make sure they had the same support system on campus.”

Those support systems include groups on campus such as Laker Familia for Latinx students, Black Excellence orientations for Black students, and programs such as TRIO, a federally funded support program for first-generation and limited-income college students. Many of these groups and programs also offer mentors as additional support.

Banks and Hurtado-Macias both say that they have gotten involved in these organizations and made friends, which has increased their comfort level in terms of knowing that the school is committed to supporting diversity.

“Pretty much just as a first-generation student, I don’t know what the experience is like, and me as a first-gen, I had to move out from my family and had to live on my own. I’m adapting to it little by little. It’s a hard situation to learn, but little by little, I’m starting to learn.”

An Economic Booster for Battle Creek

Once they graduate, Bozzo says the hope is that the scholarship recipients will come back to Battle Creek to live and work.

“We want them to have opportunities to advance in their education and get good credentials and get high-paying jobs so that they could move back to Battle Creek and make a difference,” he says. “We don’t expect them to know exactly what they want to do. We hope that whatever it is, they bring it back to Battle Creek. We need more fabulous diverse voices in the community to advocate for change.”

Applications are now being accepted for the next group of six scholarship recipients. Bozzo says the deadline is Feb. 1 and he expects double or even triple the number of applications received in 2020.

“The application is very short,” he says. “Once a student gets accepted to apply, they have access to a scholarship database through GVSU. There’s also a very short essay where they are asked to write about what their career goals are and how they think GVSU can help them reach those goals. The scholarships are geared towards students interested in education and healthcare to fill the pipeline.”

Bozzo and the four other members of the Outreach Center’s team are continuing to provide services both virtually and in-person by appointment.

“These scholarships are life-changing opportunities for these students and their families,” Bozzo says. “As our schools and students grow, our community grows. We have to value our student’s education because it means everything like access to better-paying jobs and better housing. We need to invest in education and our kids.”

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.