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Challenge Scholars near the finish line

Promise of full college scholarships motivates Union seniors

Leslie Torres worked with the focused concentration of an artist, her canvas a chocolate cupcake. Squeezing a funnel of frosting, she squeezed out delicate orange flowers, onto which she dropped chocolate sprinkles with tweezers.

“I just like making them look nice,” said the Union High School senior of her creations, earlier this school year in the busy kitchen of the Kent Career Tech Center. The process takes “a lot of patience, and creativity,” she said. 

A star student in the Tech Center’s baking program, Leslie hopes to one day do this for a living, by owning a bakery. She is well on her way skillswise, her sights set firmly on entering the renowned culinary arts program at Grand Rapids Community College, which would make her the first in her family to attend college. She’s already taking algebra at GRCC through dual enrollment. 

Her ambitious career goal is buoyed by a life-changing asset: the guarantee of a four-year college scholarship from the Challenge Scholars program. Leslie is among the first class of Union students who will qualify for the awards from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, earning their way with top grades and excellent attendance. 

Leslie was first profiled in School News Network in 2017, along with classmate Francisco McKnight, when both were freshmen. They have stayed the course since then, and are hard at work as seniors toward graduating in the spring and entering college next fall. 

As they head into their final semester, both are on track for four-year awards at a Michigan college or university.

“It really does keep me motivated,” Leslie said. “I’ve become a lot more organized. I just try to stay on track, keep heading towards the scholarship.”

Tracking the Challenge Scholars
• This year’s senior class at Union High School is the first to qualify for the Challenge Scholarship, a Grand Rapids Community Foundation program providing up to four years of tuition at Michigan public colleges and universities.

• Almost 50 seniors are on track for the 4-year scholarships, based on end-of-junior-year numbers.

• Many of the approximately 150 other seniors may qualify for two-year Challenge Scholars scholarships.

• All seniors have been encouraged to fill out scholarship applications to the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, which is working to ensure all students have a post-graduation plan. Those who do not qualify for Challenge Scholars scholarships may still qualify for other awards.

Source: Grand Rapids Community Foundation

Related Story: A scholarship promise for students citywide, not just West Side – In addition to the Challenge Scholars scholarships available to Union High School graduates, students throughout Grand Rapids will be eligible for fully funded scholarships to Grand Rapids Community College upon approval of a proposed Grand Rapids Promise Zone development plan…

Challenge Scholar Francisco McKnight decided not to play football this fall to avoid risking injury and missing school

Scholarships Boost College-going Culture    

Leslie and Francisco are among roughly 50 Union seniors – about one-fourth of the senior class — who could graduate with a four-year full college scholarship already in their pockets. To be eligible for the four-year awards students must have enrolled as sixth graders at Harrison Park or Westwood middle schools.  

By keeping their grades above a 2.5 with 95 percent attendance, students qualify for the four-year tuition award. Students with a 2.0 to 2.49 GPA also get four years paid for but beginning with two at GRCC. Students who join the program as Union ninth graders and maintain a 2.0 or better receive two years’ tuition at GRCC.

The program has put a charge into Union High’s ongoing efforts to build a culture that gets students and families thinking from Day One about what’s needed to prepare for college or job training beyond high school, said Principal Aaron Roussey. 

Earlier this fall, staff members from Union and GRCC met with seniors about where their grades and attendance stood, helped them fill out college applications, and students and parents received coaching on the intimidating FAFSA financial aid form.

“I’ve never seen anything that has brought more positive focus to our building and kids than this,” said Roussey, a former teacher there. “It’s put a magnifying glass on them to say that the expense of college does not have to be the obstacle.”

An obstacle for some Challenge Scholars, however, has been the 95 percent attendance requirement, as rising housing costs have forced some families out of the district. A number have moved to other areas, such as York Creek Apartments in Comstock Park, but continue to come by city bus or car pool in order to stay in the program, Roussey said, adding the school tries to help students find a ride. 

‘It really does keep me motivated. I’ve become a lot more organized.’

– Union senior Leslie Torres

These forced moves are “not what we had intended,” said Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. The foundation has worked with the nonprofit Dwelling Place, which works to create quality affordable housing to open units, with some reserved for Challenge Scholars families. “It’s important but it’s a drop in the bucket,” Sieger said.

Besides the attendance issue, Challenge Scholars are now facing the realities of applying to college, said Tracy Benjamin, Union’s college and career coordinator. She helped them and other seniors fill out forms earlier this fall.

“It’s becoming more real to them now that they’re taking the steps they need to get to where they want to be,” Benjamin said.

Tracy Benjamin, right, college and career coordinator, helps Challenge Scholar Stacy Zacarias fill out an application to the University of Michigan

College and Career over Football  

Francisco McKnight said he knows where he wants to be, and this fall decided it wasn’t on the football field. Injuries and sickness hurt his attendance last year, so he passed on playing rather than risk jeopardizing his scholarship eligibility.

“I know what I want. Football’s not something I want,” Francisco said. “Now I’m more focused on getting to college, focused on a future career.”

His career focus is health science, as an orthopedic surgeon or physical therapist. He’s applied to Grand Valley State University, Northern Michigan University and Ripon College, an out-of-state private school. His scholarship wouldn’t apply at Ripon, but he said he’s been offered a $26,000 scholarship there. Still, the prospect of “a four-year degree with no debt at all” is a major factor in his choice, he said.

‘It’s put a magnifying glass on them to say that the expense of college does not have to be the obstacle.’

— Union High Principal Aaron Roussey

His more immediate priority is hitting the alarm at 5:30 a.m., taking a full plate of courses before going to his job at Bob Evans, and retaking the SAT for a better score. He’s pushed along by the assurance of graduation, with big plans beyond.

“I’m definitely excited to be moving on, but this is just the first step to getting to my true excitement,” he said. “Getting to college would be a great first step, but graduating would be the best step. It would make me the first in my family to graduate from college.” 

Roussey says Francisco has “incredible qualities” that will help him achieve his goals.

“He is always looking for opportunities to help others and is the first to step up when given the chance,” Roussey said. “His peers respect him for his kindness, his ability to make others laugh, and his overall generosity. Frank leads mainly by example and I am excited to see what he does upon graduation.”

Senior Leslie Torres, right, enjoys making cupcakes at the Kent Career Tech Center with fellow Challenge Scholar Tasia Holton

‘She’s Got it All’

Back at the Kent Career Tech Center, Leslie Torres teamed with fellow Challenge Scholar Tasia Holton to create a colorful collection of sweets. She’d baked cookies at home but got turned on to the beauty of baking in Tech Center classes.

“I like to pay attention to details,” she said. “I thought it would be interesting to try to perfect the way pastries would look.”

Leslie is a “phenomenal” student baker, said her instructor, Sarah Waller.

“She is going to go a long way,” said Waller, a certified executive pastry chef who formerly worked at Egypt Valley Country Club. “She’s got it all.”

‘Getting to college would be a great first step, but graduating would be the best step.’

– Union senior Francisco McKnight

But does she have what it takes to own a bakery? “No problem,” Waller said. “I’d invest in her any day.” 

As she works to perfect her art – and earn industry certification in food handling – Leslie looks ahead with confidence toward graduation day.

“I’m ready for that day to come already,” she said. “It’s going to be a good day.” 

Erin Albanese contributed to this report

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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