Dressed for Success

The DRDFS Suited for Success event is a celebration of achievement and a chance for students to prepare to take the next step on their journey

“This event is a huge celebration of these students—an opportunity to show them how many people believe in them and what they are going to accomplish.”

Those are the words of Lyric Bingham, Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS) Post-Secondary Transition Coach, describing the organization’s Suited for Success event that took place on May 2, 2024, at the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The event serves as an important milestone in the educational journeys of DRDFS students and gives DRDFS seniors the opportunity to share publicly with peers, friends, and family what their plans are after high school.

For Miranda Alonso, a DRDFS senior from Detroit Cristo Rey High School, those plans include attending Notre Dame and studying finance. Miranda explained how important DRDFS has been in making her college dreams a reality. “Being able to learn so much about so many different colleges and helping me find the best fit has been one of the best aspects of my DRDFS experience,” Miranda said. “I can’t say enough about how this program has been so much more than just something to challenge us academically. For me, DRDFS is about making connections and meeting people and learning skills we can use for the rest of our lives.”

That sentiment resonates with DRDFS Post-Secondary Transition Coach Tania Vega. Like her counterpart, Lyric, Tania sees Suited for Success as a celebration of the students who have come so far and are primed to go on to exciting new challenges. “For me personally, this is my favorite event of the entire year,” said Tania. “I love that it’s focused on the students and their accomplishments. I think it inspires them and it shows them that what they have achieved is a genuinely big deal— and that people care about them and want to help them get where they want to be.”

For Lincoln High School’s Saniya Traylor, that support is palpable and meaningful.

Saniya, who will be enrolling at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, said that “through DRDFS, I’ve had so many people supporting me during my high school journey – from my advisors, from conversations with people in the program, and from tutors who have helped me study for my SAT.”

William Hollins of Clintondale High School values the multiple networking opportunities and college tours he experienced through DRDFS, noting that “one of my top school choices – the University of Toledo – is a place I’d never heard about before getting started on my DRDFS journey.” William expressed gratitude for the unconditional support he has received from DRDFS while in the Next Level Scholars program. “DRDFS supported me by reassuring me that even if I don’t go to college, there are so many post-secondary opportunities out there—and there will be a support system behind me no matter what,” William said.

Communication & Media Arts High School’s Taylar Toodle also enjoyed the college tours and the chance to meet so many people. Taylar noted that having DRDFS’ support has been especially vital this year, when confusion around FAFSA changes raised a lot of tricky financial aid questions for graduating seniors. She will be attending Western Michigan University in the fall, and encouraged those who come after her to take full advantage of everything that DRDFS has to offer. “Be bold! Step outside your comfort zone,” Taylar said. “The experiences and training opportunities you’ll have are so helpful now and will continue to be valuable as we move into the real world.”

Opportunities for Yousif Salim of Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Sterling Heights will come this fall at the University of Detroit-Mercy, where he is entering the school’s six-year business law program. “DRDFS has been a part of my high school journey from day one,” said Yousif. “In fact, it was talking with my counselors that ultimately helped me figure out what I really enjoy and was passionate about. And that was so important in figuring out where to go to college.”

That is music to Tania and Lyric’s ears. Tania was emphatic that DRDFS students should continue to “use the resources available to them, including us!” and encouraged graduates to reach out when and if they need guidance or support.

That is why, for the hundreds of students at the 16 DRDFS partner high schools across Southeast Michigan, and for the long and growing list of program graduates who have gone on to impressive post-high-school accomplishments, Suited for Success is more than just a celebration. It’s a powerful reminder of the personal and institutional support that is available to them as they strive to become the most fulfilled and empowered version of themselves.

Marecki: FAFSA changes increase college accessibility

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a free form that unlocks access to federal grants, work-study funds, and loans, as well as state and school aid, is a critically important tool for Michigan students who are planning to enroll in college this fall.

FAFSA has been making headlines this year, and not necessarily in a positive way. The form has been revamped, under an initiative called Better FAFSA by Federal Student Aid. The overhauled version of the FAFSA is designed to achieve a number of improvements and streamlined features, including a “significant increase in the number of students eligible to receive a Pell Grant.”

In Michigan, nearly 20,000 more students could qualify for the Pell Grant and eligible students could receive up to $27,500 for college through a new Michigan scholarship, just by filling out the FAFSA form. The number of questions has also decreased from more than 100 to under 20. Unfortunately, the rollout of the new form has been plagued with issues, including a months-long delay that has contributed to a 56% decrease in national submissions compared to 2023.

Here’s the good news, however: Despite these hiccups, the FAFSA changes are a positive and much needed update.

With these changes and Michigan’s transformative $24.3 billion school budget signed in 2023, college has the potential to be more accessible and affordable than ever for Michigan graduates.

Despite the delays and frustrations caused by the changes in the form, students and their support system should not get discouraged. They should be keenly focused on completing the FAFSA now and reviewing their submission summary carefully for any errors. We know that high school seniors who complete the FAFSA are 84% more likely to immediately enroll in post-secondary education. Organizations like the National College Attainment Network have been sounding the alarm, urging students, families, schools, and support organizations to prioritize filling out the FAFSA now, otherwise we could be facing a steep decline in post-secondary enrollment this fall.

At Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS), we are very familiar with the challenges facing today’s students as they work their way through the financial aid process. DRDFS works closely with hundreds of young people across Metro Detroit, we have seen firsthand that with targeted support, including helping students fill out the FAFSA, our students’ dreams of attending college become a reality with the financial aid they unlock after completing the form.

With state investments, there is a 217% increase in financial aid available for state students, according to the Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential (MiLEAP). This extraordinary number supports the idea that college has the potential to be the most affordable it has been in recent history. It also reinforces the vital importance of making sure that students overcome the logistical hurdles and fill out the FAFSA.

The impact of that support can be profound. As of March 2024, over 90% of DRDFS seniors have completed the FAFSA with the help of one-on-one support from our coaches, compared to just over 30% of all seniors nationally. Michigan students are counting on us all to help them navigate the process as they prepare for life after high school.

Jill Marecki is the Next Level Scholars Program Director at Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars.

Originally published in The Detroit News, April 18, 2024

Bridge to Possibilities

AT&T Michigan President David Lewis set to headline DRDFS 11th Annual Celebration Luncheon

 

AT&T Michigan President David C. Lewis, Sr. is no stranger to overcoming adversity and making the most of his opportunities. The trailblazing executive has spoken candidly and compellingly about his own story and the transformative power of education and mentorship – as well as the combination of personal initiative and family and community support – that has enabled him to overcome challenges and achieve personal and professional success.

All of which makes him an extraordinary role model for the young people who are a part of the Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars program – and why it’s such a thrill to have David join the DRDFS team as the keynote speaker for our 11th Annual Celebration Luncheon on March 6, 2024. The event, which will take place at the University of Detroit Mercy, celebrates the more than 100 students in the Next Level Scholars (NLS) Class of 2024 as they graduate from high school and embark on the next step of their educational journey.

David’s address to the students will illuminate how the DRDFS mission connects to his own journey. He will expand on the importance of reaching back while moving forward – and how DRDFS scholars have the opportunity and responsibility to serve as positive examples and leaders for their peers, not just tomorrow, but right now. David plans to share his own inspiring story of success despite the challenges of growing up in a single-parent household in a tough neighborhood, connecting with NLS students about what it takes to overcome similar challenges. All punctuated by inspiring advice from the works of influential black leaders like Cornel West and W.E.B. Du Bois who have been impactful in his own life.

David will also share some of the ways that AT&T is engaged in important work that complements DRDFS initiatives, most notably by bridging the digital divide and connecting communities. That divide – the lack of access to technology and reliable high-speed internet – keeps millions of Americans from having the information they need to thrive. AT&T is making strong efforts to improve access and affordability by expanding its networks and providing more low-cost solutions. These initiatives, along with driving adoption by ensuring digital access for all, are not just admirable, they are essential. Like DRDFS, AT&T’s work empowers young people and elevates not just individuals, but families and communities along the way. For AT&T, connectivity is a bridge to possibility, and the company has stood behind those words through its national commitment to help address the digital divide across the country and in Michigan.

Education. Access. Opportunity. These are key themes in David’s story and in his message that will resonate with every DRDFS student. Through DRDFS and its NLS program, hundreds of students every year across Southeast Michigan have a potentially life-changing opportunity to earn a post-secondary credential and achieve their own goals. The 2024 luncheon event is not just a celebration of that opportunity, but of an important milestone in their own educational journeys. Together, they are crossing a bridge to a future filled with limitless possibilities.

To Boost Post-Secondary Outcomes, Invest in Stronger Pipelines

Does Michigan value education? For the success of our state, one would hope so, but for years we have heard that the value of a higher education has been called
into question. Most recently, Glengariff Group’s survey for the Detroit Regional Chamber reported that only 25% of parents viewed a college education as essential for success.

Regardless of public opinion, the data demonstrates that there is no more significant mechanism for social mobility than a college credential. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) estimates that, by 2031, 72% of jobs will require a post-secondary qualification.

To become a top ten state, we know that Michigan needs more students to pursue and complete post-secondary programs. Rather than focus on the perceived value of a college degree, why not shift our attention to the steps required to make post-secondary success a reality for more students?

Competing Narratives

Many economic, social and political factors shape the public’s opinion of higher education. However, one persistent challenge that complicates the issue is inconsistent messaging.

As their student progresses through school, families receive a range of conflicting advice. Parents are told that four-year institutions are the only viable path to success, only to turn around and hear that students seeking high-paying positions should concentrate on training for a trade.

The truth is that none of these messages need to compete. Skills-based certificates and four-year degrees are both valuable post-secondary credentials. Our role as advocates is to ensure that all students have the information, opportunities, support and resources to attain the qualifications necessary to build rewarding and sustainable careers.

It’s easy to lose sight of the progress that has been made in fostering K-12 to higher education pipelines. But aligning those efforts — and the messages they champion — has never been more critical. Students across our state, in every community, need all of us to work together so that they can understand their options, create a realistic pathway to a good paying career and thrive as they pursue post-secondary attainment.

If we do this, these narratives can be blended into one cohesive plan—a prosperous future where we put students’ interests, needs and desires first and help them find the post-secondary pathway that works for them.

Personal Connections

While broader perception trends provide some insight into the educational landscape, they do not represent the whole picture. Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS) has long recognized that it is the personal connections and experiences that puts the value in perspective for students.

Campus visits, workshops and college fairs help students imagine themselves at a post-secondary institution — be it two-year, four-year or technical. As the overwhelming majority of students DRDFS works with will be the first in their family to graduate from a post-secondary institution, these types of experiences are particularly impactful.

The results are conclusive. 100% of DRDFS participants graduate high school on time. 87% go on to enroll in post-secondary education within 12 months, against a 49% national average for students from low-income schools.

For organizations like DRDFS, the next challenge is to find ways to amplify these efforts and expand partnerships to scale impact. Initiatives such as the newly established Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement and Potential (MiLEAP) are a promising start. Aligning efforts from early childhood to career, this department has the potential to change Michigan’s trajectory. One of the three broad goals of the department is to “prioritize community, regional, and state partnerships that help our students succeed.” Partnerships are going to be essential to reach the state’s goal of increasing the number of Michigander’s with a skill certificate or college degree to 60% by 2030. Alignment and partnerships are the key to ensuring students have the personal connections in order to navigate the path through post-secondary education and reach their goals.

A Critical Moment

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate enrollment grew 2.1% in fall 2023 — the first increase since the beginning of the pandemic. The appetite for higher education is there. That means we have reached a pivotal moment of opportunity.

Now is the time to listen to our communities, understand the barriers they are experiencing and provide clear, collaborative solutions. When it comes to perceptions around post-secondary education, the data matters. If we hope to change the narrative, though, we must center the voices of communities and programs helping rewrite the script.

Thanks to the work happening across Michigan, we already know many of the strategies that will encourage students to enroll and persist in post-secondary institutions. It will take a concerted, consistent investment at the state level to elevate best practices and pipeline programs to create an inclusive and equitable culture that demonstrates the impact that higher education can have for each student, family and community.

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.”

Harold Dubrowsky: A Spark of Inspiration

 

For Harold Dubrowsky, longtime Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS) supporter and board member, finding out that he was the 2023 recipient of the organization’s Spark Award came as quite a surprise. The award is given annually to an individual who embodies the DRDFS founding principle of igniting a spark in a student’s interest in education into a passion for their future. It is typically handled by the organization’s Publicity and Recognition Committee—one of many committees that Harold serves on.

“We never discussed it this year, which I thought was a little odd,” he admits.

To anyone familiar with Harold’s work with DRDFS, news that he was the 2023 Spark Award honoree comes as no surprise at all. Harold has been an active supporter of DRDFS for more than a decade and has played an integral role in DRDFS’ evolution into a recognized, respected, and influential regional organization.

He’s someone that DRDFS Executive Advisory Board member Michael Plotzke describes as a “smart, dedicated, and passionate advocate and a steadfast supporter of scholars in our community.”

A native Detroiter, Harold was a CPA when he first met DRDFS Board President Bill Young in 1998. The more he learned about the organization from Bill, the more he wanted to get involved.

“I’ve always been active in not-for-profit organizations, serving on boards and in leadership positions where I could use my skills to help raise money and organize events. When Bill reached out to ask if I was interested in serving on the board and helping DRDFS evolve from a grassroots model to an executive-led, board-driven organization, I saw an opportunity to help.”

And help he did. Working alongside the dedicated DRDFS staff and board members, Harold has had significant influence in helping reshape a group of enthusiastic volunteers into an efficient, committee-led model that drives the growth of an impactful charitable organization. He has helped clarify roles and streamline and improve the DRDFS committee structure, tapping into his professional and charitable resources to help create an executive advisory committee.

Harold has remained heavily involved and continues to dedicate his time and energy to DRDFS. He chairs the Finance Committee and the Next Level Scholars Committee, is a co-chair on the Investment Committee, serves on the Publicity and Recognition and Fundraising committees, and sits on the DRDFS board, where he is a member of the Executive Committee and the DRDFS Treasurer.

Over the past decade, DRDFS has expanded from one to 10 full-time employees and has grown its network of fundraising and financing support to over 100 foundations, corporations, and individuals. Harold has helped DRDFS launch several fundraising programs and grow its savings and net worth to support continued growth in the future.

“I’ve had a front row seat to see this organization evolve from a relatively small startup to an influential regional non-profit that serves 15 high schools,” says Harold. “We are well on our way to reaching our target of 25 schools.”

As gratifying as that growth may be for someone like Harold, the greatest source of his inspiration and passion hasn’t changed.

“It’s 100% the students. They are so engaged and so committed. We talk all the time at DRDFS about the need to inspire, prepare, and succeed, and I see the “inspire” part of that in action all the time. Watching kids transform not just their lives, but their communities by fulfilling their dreams and becoming active and passionate role models for others.”

For Harold, it’s rewarding to help students dream big, envision, and articulate what they want, and help them map out a plan academically and financially to achieve it. But getting the chance to see them go out and do it is the most rewarding part of all—and it continues to inspire him every day.

That inspiration is at the heart of Harold’s pitch to others when explaining why DRDFS matters and why it’s a worthwhile cause to support.

“I talk to people like me all the time who want to give back, and they often ask me how they know which charitable organizations to support. The good news for me is that DRDFS can demonstrate very clearly what we do, how we do it, and what we spend to make it happen. Most compelling of all is that our outcomes are incredible. I’ve been a part of many charitable organizations, and DRDFS is one of the most visible and clearly impactful ROI-driven examples I’ve seen.”

Why does DRDFS make such an impression? According to Harold, it’s because “People get it. They can see it working. And they want to be a part of it. People that come to our events tend to get involved and stay involved, because it’s clear that something special is happening here. We are changing the trajectory of students, families, and communities. Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of something like that?”

For this year’s Spark Award recipient, being a part of it is reward enough. “It’s so gratifying because this organization means so much to me. I’m hardly the only deserving recipient; there are so many influential and selfless and hard-working people that have made this organization what it is today. I’ve never been involved with an organization where I felt the kind of passion, joy, and commitment that I see regularly from everyone who is a part of DRDFS. And I’m so proud to count myself among them.”

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