In Good Company

Receiving the inaugural MCAN Harbor Award is a validation of DRDFS’ mission—and an inspiring opportunity to connect with groups that share similar goals and ideals

The Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) is a leading organization in Michigan’s college access movement. The organization has done great work to improve the futures of Michigan’s students and communities by making college more accessible. Their work is not just consistent with the DRDFS mission, it also represents an inspirational example of what the broader community can accomplish collectively in support of the young people who will make an enduring positive impact on Michigan’s future.

Last month, DRDFS was honored to receive MCAN’s first-ever Harbor Award, presented to an organization that has significantly contributed to the college access field through direct service in its community. The award was presented at the College Access Impact Awards, MCAN’s annual event honoring “the individuals and organizations who have made extraordinary efforts to improve postsecondary attainment in Michigan, especially among low-income students, first-generation college-going students and students of color.”

“DRDFS shares our vision of providing equitable opportunities for students to earn a post-secondary credential, reach their career goals, and strengthen their communities,” said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, MCAN executive director. “We are proud to honor DRDFS’ work with the inaugural Harbor Award.”

The College Access Impact Awards program has recognized more than 100 people and organizations since the awards began in 2015. DRDFS was one of 13 individuals and organizations honored at the 2023 event, which was held in Mount Pleasant. To be recognized alongside so many individuals and organizations doing such extraordinary and admirable work was a memorable and rewarding experience.

After more than 30 years of serving Southeast Michigan students, this is a noteworthy moment for DRDFS: an important step for a grassroots organization that continues to grow and make an increasingly significant impact. The MCAN Harbor Award is also a distinct honor specifically because of the award’s focus on and recognition of community impact.

DRDFS is part of a larger community that extends across Southeast Michigan. There are so many hardworking and inspiring people who support the organization. From high school advisors and principals to the DRDFS alumni who come back to talk to students, DRDFS truly does rely on the hard work, involvement, and support of so many. DRDFS was founded to address a need in the community, and community and connectivity remain at the core of that mission and at the heart of the DRDFS organizational identity.

“We feel so fortunate to be a part of this important time in our students’ lives,” said Christa Funk, DRDFS executive director. “Students across our state, in every community, need all of us to keep being that harbor: a place to belong and a place where every student can thrive as they pursue post-secondary attainment. We look forward to continuing our work to help them make their goals a reality.”



Applied Initiative

Southeast Michigan high school seniors have an opportunity to learn, apply, and in some cases, get accepted to college at the DRDFS Apply Day.

For hundreds of Detroit-area high school students, getting accepted to college and continuing their educational journey is the culmination of a three-year Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS) program experience that is all about helping them take that all-important next step to post-secondary education.

Which is why it was such a thrill for Miranda Alonzo, a Detroit Cristo Rey High School student who attended Apply Day, to find out at the event that she was one of the students who had been accepted to Eastern Michigan University (EMU).

“I was looking forward to checking out several colleges, but EMU was one I really wanted to apply to,” said Miranda. “I filled out some paperwork, submitted my transcript, and they got back to me right away with an acceptance letter and a scholarship offer. It happened so quickly, and it was such an incredible feeling.”

Miranda was one of more than 100 Metro Detroit high school seniors involved in the DRDFS Next Level Scholars Program who attended Apply Day on Wednesday, October 25, 2023 at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor. A college fair environment with representatives from universities, community colleges and trade schools across the region in attendance, Apply Day gives DRDFS program participants the chance to attend FAFSA and financial literacy workshops, a scholarship information session, and a college transition seminar led by DRDFS transition coaches. The highlight for many, however, was the potential for an on-site college acceptance experience like Miranda’s.

According to DRDFS Program Director Marissa D’Angelo, there were almost 50 colleges, universities, and trade schools in attendance, including The University of Detroit Mercy, Central Michigan University, Grand Valley University, Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Western Michigan University.

“It’s so rewarding to be there and watch as these students we’ve worked so closely with for years realize their dream of a college education become a reality,” said D’Angelo. “Like Miranda, many of the students will be the first-ever in their families to attend college.”

For Detroit Cristo Rey High School student Melanie Barron, who plans to apply to her self-described dream school, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the event was a chance to broaden her horizons and continue what has been a remarkable experience with DRDFS.

“My experience with DRDFS has been great,” said Melanie. “It’s offered me so many opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and it has consistently pushed me to put myself out there. I’m so grateful for the opportunity and the experience.”

One of those opportunities turned into acceptance reality for Melanie, as she was accepted on-site to EMU. EMU college admissions professional Misty Sparrow says that the school was able to complete 20 on-site admissions at the event and connected with many other students who are planning to apply to EMU in the future.

“This is such an important event,” said Misty. “Because it gives students a chance to hear from these institutions and learn about their options and financial aid possibilities—everything they need to make sure they are prepared for the next step in their educational journey. I work closely with DRDFS as an on-campus partner at Eastern, where we host a DRDFS event every January. It’s been so fun to see the students here today, some of whom I recognize from attending our on-campus event two years ago.”

Clintondale High School Counselor Courtney Carroll said, “All eight of the students we brought today were accepted to EMU, a full-circle moment considering that EMU was their first college trip as sophomores. In a process that can feel so overwhelming, this is such a fun kickoff to senior year.” Courtney was particularly complimentary of the financial literacy piece of the Apply event. “I know from my own experience how abstract things like student loans and interest rates seemed when I was younger,” she explained. “So it’s powerful to see them learning these valuable insights.”

University of Michigan-Flint representative Nikolas Davis gave kudos to DRDFS for planning and hosting the Apply event. Davis pointed out that the benefits go both ways. “This is obviously a great opportunity for students, but it’s also a great opportunity for universities, as well. It’s gratifying to talk to students who were already interested in our university, but also to talk to those who hadn’t heard of us before and now want to know more.” Davis says University of Michigan-Flint was able to offer on-site admission to about 10 to 15 students.

Milestone moments like the ones so many students experienced at this year’s Apply event are part of what makes DRDFS so impactful to so many. It’s why students like Miranda Alonzo are “so grateful to be a part of this program that means so much to me—and to so many other students like me.”

Sustained Support—Enduring Impact

Connections and recollections at the DRDFS Downtown Networking Tailgate

One of the most impactful elements of the support that Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS) provides to more than 400 high school students annually is that their support doesn’t end when those students graduate high school. It continues throughout college, with regular check-ins, personal meetings, thoughtful counsel, and educational, personal, and professional guidance.

It’s the kind of sustained and sincere commitment that prompts Omimah Yahya, a DRDFS program grad and a junior at the University of Detroit-Mercy to observe that “Everyone thinks it’s just a high school program. That’s what I thought, too. But the support continues. DRDFS is always reaching out and checking in, continuing to provide counsel and support and opportunities for connection at alumni events.”

Fittingly enough, Omimah made that observation at the DRDFS Downtown Networking Tailgate, which took place on Thursday, September 28, 2023 at the One Campus Martius building in downtown Detroit. The unique networking event provided an opportunity for professionals from different companies in and around Detroit to come together to make new connections, learn more about DRDFS, and take in the incredible view. Alumni from the DRDFS Next Level Scholars program were on hand to share their stories and explain how DRDFS made a difference in their lives.

For DRDFS alumnus Alexander Connelly, who graduated high school in 2020 and currently attends the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor that difference manifested itself in everything from SAT prep and application assistance to college campus visits. “That’s why I’m here today,” said Connelly. “I really want to give back. I really love this program and all they do for education.” For current Macomb Community College student Malik Knight, DRDFS provides “a different level of outreach” that continues today. More importantly, the program helped him recognize that “I have the ability to control my own future.” DRDFS was similarly life-changing for program alum Angeles Cuevas, who graduated from Eastern Michigan with a double major in Spanish and communications. Angeles shared that as helpful as DRDFS was for her in high school, “I’ve actually benefited more from the program after high school. When my parents were stranded in Mexico because of border closures during COVID, DRDFS was there for me, helping me stay on track in school and in life.”

Stories like these are why Anthony Catalina, Senior Vice President, Commercial Sales Manager with the event’s presenting sponsor Fifth Third Bank, took to the podium at the event to say that Fifth Third is “so glad to be supporting an organization like DRDFS which has such a meaningful impact on the students and communities of southeastern Michigan.”

It is also why DRDFS Executive Director Christa Funk, who spoke about the DRDFS Next Level Scholars program, pointed out that “in addition to the high school programming, we provide 1:1 college coaching and a $4,000 scholarship to each graduate of our program.” Funk also pointed out that DRDFS works with over 650 program alumni pursuing post-secondary pathways across the country. She referenced that metrics show DRDFS students outpacing their peers on both the state and national level, but she also made the point that behind the data and stats it’s the students themselves that demonstrate what impact really looks like.

Their testimony, and the presence and personalities of program alumni at events like the Downtown Networking Tailgate, is a powerful reminder of why a program that was founded in 1990 at a single high school has flourished and expanded—and now serves 16 partner high schools across the five southeast Michigan counties, impacting the lives of hundreds of students and families every year.


Mike Zlonkevicz: Breaking the Cycle

DRDFS alumni Mike Zlonkevicz grew up in a room painted maize and blue in honor of the University of Michigan football team’s colors. As the first in his family to go to college, not only was a post-high-school academic path not a priority, it wasn’t even on his radar at the time.

With DRDFS, however, that all changed.

“Just the exposure to the college experience was hugely helpful. College trips, scholarship opportunities, you name it. Those early experiences with DRDFS really opened my eyes and broadened my horizons in so many ways.”

It wasn’t just college applications and academics, either. From volunteer work and charitable initiatives to unique networking opportunities, Mike was able to give back to Detroit, the city he had fallen in love with as a child—and to connect with new people and new experiences.

“We cleaned alleyways downtown and worked with local organizations to help build homes and revitalize communities.”

There was one memorable moment stuck with him in particular: a DRDFS luncheon where he had an opportunity to speak with Kurtis T. Wilder, a Michigan graduate who was the first African American judge elected in Washtenaw County and someone who would not only go on to serve on the Michigan First District Court of Appeals, but also the Michigan State Supreme Court.

“He talked to me about my aspirations and shared some perspective from his own career. He encouraged me to follow my heart: to do what I love and let the finances fall into place.”

Mike took Judge Wilder’s advice to heart. His passion for psychology and for communicating and engaging with people is now part of his everyday experience. Today, he is an Account Executive at Brooksource, an IT services and staffing solutions provider for Fortune 500 companies. As a hiring professional, Mike still quotes some of the wisdom he heard at that luncheon and at other events like it.

A 2016 graduate of Ida High School in Monroe, Michigan, Mike was a member of the first class from his high school to join the DRDFS network. His connections to the program didn’t end there. He was involved as a college student, a program alum, and now as a working professional where he is an enthusiastic advocate for the DRDFS mission. Sitting in a seat where he focuses on hiring and talks to people early in their careers who are coming from a range of different backgrounds, he is in an ideal position to pass that passion and perspective on to others.

“DRDFS means a lot to me. Not just because of what the program has done for me personally, but for the ways in which I see it opening up new opportunities for so many smart, hard-working, and talented young people who need and deserve a hand.”

Mike sees how the young people that DRDFS supports are part of an untapped and underutilized pipeline of talent that will help drive the future of Detroit. As someone who loves the city he calls home, keeping talented young professionals in Detroit is a worthwhile and valuable mission to Mike.

“I’m very much aware of the real-life impact of DRDFS. I’ve lived it! So I know that this is an organization that is helping those who deserve the help and who haven’t traditionally had access to the resources they need for one reason or another—whether systematically, socially, or financially.”

In his line of work, Mike sees how pernicious and pervasive those cycles can be. Which is why DRDFS’s proven ability to break that cycle is so exciting to him and why he loves not just being be a part of that story, but also helping to perpetuate that mission in his own work.

“People that have unconventional journeys are just as valuable—and I want to make sure that they are just as valued. DRDFS is focused on making sure they have the resources to achieve their potential.”

Mike feels that he is in the position to help make a difference today because of DRDFS. The impact and influence that DRDFS has had on him makes it possible for him to pass that passion and perspective on to others.

“I want to do as much as I can for DRDFS because of how much they are doing for people in communities across Southeast Michigan. I’m just one person, of course, but if I can help break the cycle, pay it forward, and help others in the process, that’s something I feel really good about.”

DRDFS and Scholarship America Awards Ten Students with a Trailblazer Scholarship Award

Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS), in partnership with Scholarship America, awarded Trailblazer Scholarships to ten deserving DRDFS college students. The scholarship is a $4,000 per year award renewable for four years or until a Bachelor’s Degree is completed, whichever comes first.

This award is part of Scholarship America’s goal to grant a majority of their scholarships to high-need, historically marginalized students so they can realize the benefits of a high-quality college degree or credential. It also serves as an example of new ways to bring private-sector scholarship dollars and community-based student services together, in order to help students with financial needs succeed in college.

“Combining Scholarship America’s national reach with the intimate local knowledge of partners like DRDFS is a game-changer,” says Scholarship America CEO Mike Nylund. “Not only are we providing 360-degree support to students, we’re also learning how we can evolve the scholarship industry and help our funders and partners deliver the biggest and most equitable impact possible.”

In order to be eligible, students had to be enrolled in an accredited two- or four-year college or university within the United States, have completed their first year of academic instruction, self-identify as Black, Latino, Indigenous, and/or of a historically marginalized community and demonstrate financial need.

“We are really excited for this opportunity to partner with Scholarship America to lessen the financial barriers of college for our students and support them in persisting through post-secondary education,” said Christa Funk, Executive Director of DRDFS. “Students, especially first-generation college students, often need more than just financial support throughout their college journey. This pilot program allows for amplified scholarships while also layering on additional holistic support to ensure students reach their educational goals.”

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