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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Erin Talbot loves seeing students’ hard work come to fruition.
As the Awards and Alumni Manager for DRDFS, Erin oversees the awarding of over $600,000 in scholarships to the graduating high school senior class each year. This year, she’s in charge of issuing scholarship funds to more than 320 students — the most recipients DRDFS has seen since its inception.
As someone who has been with DRDFS for the entirety of her professional career, Erin has had the pleasure of witnessing the scholarship process come full circle. Many of the former high school students she helped award DRDFS scholarships to are now graduating from their chosen post-secondary programs, whether it be from colleges, universities, or trade apprenticeships. Erin has experienced first-hand how scholarships and academic support can alter the trajectory of a student’s life.
“I’ve been with DRDFS long enough now to see a lot of our students graduate from college,” she said. “Seeing that transformation, that growth over time, has been super rewarding and really exciting. Now, watching them start their careers, it’s just been fantastic.”
Initially drawn to teaching, Erin set her sights on pursuing a degree in secondary education. But after some reflection, she realized her true calling was creating opportunities for students beyond the classroom. This led her to a degree in Public, Nonprofit, and Health Administration from Grand Valley State University, and since 2017, a role with DRDFS
“We can directly see the benefits of our organization at work,” she said. “The scholarship dollars, the alumni support, and all of the preparation students receive — we do it to enable them to reach their goals.”
But Erin’s role doesn’t end at disbursing DRDFS scholarship funds. Students need help with the array of research, processes, and administration work that comes with scholarships, such as filling out and filing all necessary paperwork, planning how to use funds, and making sure their next institution actually receives the payment toward the student’s tuition.
Erin also excels at helping students overcome new challenges and changes that often come with attending post-secondary school, such as being away from home and family. She checks in with alumni regularly, and recently helped one of them find an apartment in an area near their school. She’s also helped former DRDFS scholarship recipients find their path after college, such as applying for grad school or jobs that align with their long-term goals.
Not everyone is interested in attending college right after graduating high school, so the DRDFS team helps these students find alternatives. DRDFS scholarship funds aren’t exclusively for students pursuing a degree from a traditional four-year university — Erin has connected countless students to trade schools and community colleges that allow them to zero in on a career in a matter of months, not years. Her responsibilities also involve ensuring students are aware their DRDFS scholarship funds don’t need to be used immediately upon receiving an award — the money can be spread out over multiple years, or deferred in the case of students who want to take a gap year between high school and college.
“All of our students are on a very unique path individually,” she said. “Supporting them, in whatever way that may look like, is our top priority.”
Erin’s dedication to empowering students who otherwise may not pursue an education after high school is the embodiment of DRDFS’ mission as a whole. By turning her passion into purpose, Erin continues to change the lives of a remarkable number of students — but it’s worth noting that they’ve made a mark on her, too.
“Not only are our students’ lives changed throughout the program, but the staff is also incredibly impacted through working with them and hearing their inspirational stories,” she said. “Watching them fulfill their dreams of being a first-generation college graduate or a first-generation high school graduate has been so rewarding. Experiencing their successes and being able to be alongside them during their different journeys is such a privilege.”
College wasn’t on Elijah Daniel’s personal radar screen in 2018.
He certainly did not expect not only his collegiate future, but the entire trajectory of his life, to change, as well. But that is exactly what happened. DRDFS would help Elijah grow as an individual and as a student, helping him develop and refine the tools that would enable him to make the most of his natural charisma by becoming a skilled communicator and a college-ready student.
“Three years ago? I was not remotely ready. Today I’m a very different person—and DRDFS has a lot to do with that.”
It’s a sign of just how much DRDFS has made an impact on Elijah that he has trouble deciding on his favorite part of the program. Two things he circles back to, however, are the sophisticated SAT preparation assistance and etiquette and communications training: both elements of the DRDFS program that he sees as vital and practical skills for an aspiring college student.
“Knowing how to speak to and engage with not just your peers, but with professionals and people in college and beyond is so important. There are programs to help you with that in college, but DRDFS gave me an invaluable head start. The practical skills I learned and developed through DRDFS are already helping me build and maintain long-lasting relationships.”
His DRDFS experiences sparked a passion for communication that continues with Elijah today. A self-described quiet kid who never used to talk, Elijah is a buoyant and compelling communicator who knows how to connect with a listener and engage an audience. His enthusiasm is obvious, and the clarity of his answers does justice to the depth of his keen insights.
Clarity is a consistent theme for Elijah, who was able to tell almost immediately on a DRDFS-sponsored tour of Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing that it was where he wanted to go to college.
“I’m big on energy. If I get a good feeling and the energy is right, I’m all in. MSU was our first college tour. I remember just feeling so happy. It truly felt like I was home. My friends would joke with me about it and my response was always the same: I’m going here. I made a vow to myself that the next time I came back to MSU it would be for an orientation as a new student. And then I went to work.”
Sure enough, Elijah applied for early admission and was accepted to MSU.
“That wasn’t the only college I got into, but it was the only one for me. It felt like it was meant to be.”
He not only applied early, he enrolled early, with a scholarship that allowed him to start taking summer classes—and he remains ahead of schedule, slated to graduate from MSU a semester early.
When he had a chance to apply to be a DRDFS intern, Elijah was similarly decisive in seizing the opportunity.
“I think about one of my heroes and fellow Spartans, Magic Johnson. Magic obviously started off as a basketball player, then moved to the front office and became a business owner. As an alumnus, I will always be a part of the DRDFS program. And my experience there was so positive that I was actively looking for ways to stay involved. So, when the internship program presented itself, I jumped at the chance to apply.”
That internship gave Elijah the chance to expand and refine his communication skills, to work in a professional environment and to connect with people of different backgrounds and perspectives. It gave him new tools and new opportunities to challenge himself and broaden his personal and professional toolkit in ways that continue to open doors for him.
And now he wants to do the same for others.
“When you get into any program, or any school, the first thing I tell young people is how important it is to know what you want. No one can tell you what you want or figure it out for you. Once you take that critical first step on your own, there are people and programs that can help you go from there and get you started walking the path to achieve your goals.”
Elijah says he is committed to educating other kids like him who might want this opportunity—or who might not even know it exists. He encourages students to believe in themselves and to align themselves with a program—and people—that believes in them. Elijah knows firsthand how a little belief and support can have a life-altering impact.
“This program and the people around it have had such a profound influence on me. DRDFS hasn’t just changed my outlook—it’s changed my life.”
Marketea Abbott wants to give back.
As one of seven adopted siblings in a family of ten children, she is keenly aware of how fortunate and blessed she has been, benefitting not only from the care and attention of a loving and supportive family, but also from the structure and guidance she received as a participant in the Detroit Regional Dollars for Scholars (DRDFS) Next Level Scholars Program.
In her words: “DRDFS has had a profound and positive influence on me personally, and it’s so rewarding to have an opportunity to share that with others and help them have the same positive experience.”
Today, as a DRDFS post-secondary transition coach, Marketea is able to do just that. Since joining the team in 2020, Marketea works to engage with high school students to help prepare them for the next phase of their educational path, whether that is attending a college or university, enlisting in the military or a joining a trade school or apprentice program. Marketea provides outreach, coaching, and guidance based on each student’s unique post-secondary plans. She works daily with her students in a mentorship role that starts at the beginning of their senior year and continues through the end of the first year of their post-secondary journey—and sometimes even beyond.
She coordinates a wide range of senior-focused programming and experiences—from helping students navigate the complexities of financial aid and scholarship applications to mapping out additional career options—and continues to support students through the first year of their post-secondary path by making sure they are doing well, helping them resolve any issues, and working with them to clarify and pursue their long-term goals.
She cites fostering ongoing connections as the most rewarding aspect of her role at DRDFS.
“Building those relationships is the best part of my job. I get to be there with these impressive young people, for years in some cases, and it’s so wonderful and rewarding to see them overcome obstacles, explore and fulfill their potential, and grow and flourish over time.
Those relationships are sustained through multiple touchpoints: emails, check-in phone calls, coffee meetups and campus visits, and pop-up celebrations to recognize everything from small successes to noteworthy milestones.
Because she knows firsthand the uncertainty and information gap that so many students face, her personal knowledge and experience make her a relatable and extremely effective resource.
“My advisor always did a great job in conversations with me of asking me questions and getting me thinking. She made sure I was approaching situations with the right mindset, that I understood both the opportunities and obligations that come with being a college student, and, ultimately, that I was equipped with the tools I needed to learn and grow and advocate for myself. I’m so thrilled to be able to play that same kind of role in the lives of my students.”
One of the most important personal and professional priorities for Marketea is finding a community. That goal is part of her own DRDFS origin story. One of the things that first inspired her to apply for the Next Level Scholars program was the discovery that a favorite student teacher in her middle school English class, Christa Funk, was now DRDFS’s Executive Director.
“It helped me feel good about applying to the program. It not only made me feel comfortable, but also inspired. It was so impactful to talk and interact with Christa and see her be so clearly invested in my own success.”
It’s a big reason why Marketea is so focused today on not just getting her students on campus, but making sure they feel valued and that they find their own community once they are there—both inside and outside the classroom. To that end, she encourages all students to be ready and willing to go out of their comfort zone.
“This program can do so many amazing things for all of our students, but being willing to be uncomfortable and to challenge yourself gives you the chance to not only get so much more out of the program—but also out of yourself.”
She knows firsthand the value of that community because it’s still paying dividends in her own professional journey. Marketea has long had an interest in social work. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work from Hope College in Holland, Michigan. As she starts to work on her master’s degree in an accelerated one-year program, DRDFS has been flexible and supportive in making that possible while she continues to work full-time.
“Their dedication to me as a program alum, an employee, and as a person has been truly wonderful. It’s something I know I’m going to lean on in a year
that will certainly be full of challenges. And it’s something I know I will continue to pay forward in my own work with DRDFS Next Level Scholars students.”