Growing up in the poorest state in the country gives you a unique perspective on many things. One of those is education. With it, opportunities and careers seemed practically limitless; without it, choices were few, and opportunities scarce.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family where college was expected. But I knew many students who were very bright but who did not have the same path laid out for them, or at least not as easily. Their families worked incredibly hard to give them a chance at education. Extra jobs, low pay, long hours, no vacations … all in the name of investing in their children’s future. To me, it’s still the best investment anyone can make.
Education is the great equalizer
If we can open up educational opportunities to more students who have a hard time getting and staying on the path through higher education, we all benefit. Our country does a great job of educating students of means, and there is no reason we can’t do an equally successful job of educating students from lower income-families. It would have to look just a little different.
This is why we created the Dell Scholars Program more than a decade ago — to prove that students who may not have the highest test scores, the highest grades, or the most activities are just as able to be successful in college.
Money is often not the solution
When I had the incredible opportunity to design a scholarship program focused on students who did not normally have the chance to go to college, I knew that money alone would not solve the problem. While a $20,000 scholarship sounds like a lot (and it is), it’s the wraparound services we add to that money that make the difference: flexible financial aid and advice to ensure students maximize their scholarship funds; a resource network that provides mental health, financial, and legal support to our scholars and families; constant communication and moral support … it all comes together to achieve a graduation rate that is 4 times the national average.
While I’d like to say we had a brilliant plan designed from the start, one of the most important things we did was listen to our Scholars and get to know them each personally through their experience with the program. One thing we learned is that they don’t always need a lot of support—but if there’s no one there when they do need help, it can be disastrous. Literally one conversation, one email, and one positive comment at the right time can make a difference in a student’s life.
Giving back to those who helped them
By obtaining their bachelor’s degree, students stand to earn an extra $1,000,000 or more over their lifetimes. They also become more involved citizens and more active in their communities. Based on the data, many will measure the financial return of the Dell Scholars Program and judge it a success.
But to me, the best way to measure the return is in the dreams that are fulfilled. There isn’t much better than seeing students go on to careers that they’re passionate about — whether that’s social work, being a doctor, being an attorney, or being an artist. Because from there new dreams become a possibility, and goals are achieved.
An overwhelming majority of our Dell Scholars go into careers and positions where they’re helping others. They’re committed to giving back and creating more opportunities like the ones that helped them be successful. Also, they often have younger brothers and sisters they can be role models for. Going to college and earning a degree can grow to become expected in their family, like it was in mine. We’ve even had several examples where a Scholar’s mother or father goes back and earns their associate’s or bachelor’s degrees, after being inspired by their children.
That’s change affecting multiple generations through the relatively small investment of a scholarship. And that’s how education acts as an equalizer for families who are long on resolve but short on opportunity.
So many stories of triumph have come out of the Dell Scholars Program in the last 13 years. A common quality of all of them is a drive and resilience not to be kept down. Students face dozens and dozens of challenges that are going to be hard to get through, but we’re with them along the way to help them be successful on the path to a college degree.
And we’re just getting started.