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Challenge Scholar on campus: avoiding the virus, shooting for the stars

First class of scholarship recipients comes to college

On the day the Ottawa County Health Department issued a “staying-in-place” order for Grand Valley State University students, due an outbreak of the coronavirus on the Allendale campus, Francisco McKnight did just that – stayed in his dorm room all day and studied. 

Some students complained about being confined to their on- or off-campus residences except to go to class, get food and other essential activities. Not McKnight. He was used to confinement, after finishing his senior year at Union High School under a statewide lockdown. Besides, he’d come to GVSU to learn, not to socialize. 

“I don’t blame them,” he said of GVSU’s two-week order, which was lifted Thursday night, Oct. 1. “I completely understand. Would I like to have more human interaction? Yeah. But I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

His no-nonsense attitude toward school is one of the attributes that brought him to GVSU, tuition-free. McKnight is among the first class of Challenge Scholars, a program of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation offering full-tuition scholarships to Union High graduates who meet attendance and grade-point requirements. He is one of 51 four-year scholarship recipients enrolled in college this fall, five of them at GVSU. 

For McKnight, whose 3.6 GPA comfortably exceeded the 2.5 requirement, his scholarship gives him a shot at being the first in his family to earn a college degree. He fully intends to do so, as a biomedical science major with an eye fixed on the University of Michigan medical school. 

“I can guarantee you I will be the first to graduate,” he said, shortly after finishing an online class. “It really gives me confidence that I made it this far. There’s nothing else that really can stop me from achieving my goals.” 

A Class Making History  

School News Network has been following McKnight since his freshman year at Union, along with Leslie Torres, who is taking some time to consider her college options. 

He’s part of a 2020 graduating class whose four-year Challenge Scholarships have taken them this fall to several schools including Western Michigan University, Ferris State University and the University of Michigan. Some have begun their four-year programs at Grand Rapids Community College, while others have two-year scholarships to GRCC. 

At GVSU, all his costs are covered thanks to additional scholarships and a Pell Grant. Discovering the actual prices was “a huge surprise,” he said, adding, “Being a freshman in college, money’s a pretty big deal.” 

He supplements his income with a job at Jet’s Pizza while taking 14 credits, both online and in-person. As part of his scholarship contract, he also attends monthly virtual luncheons with other scholarship recipients and campus officials, submits progress reports to his professors, and meets five times a semester with V’Lecea Hunter, an enrollment support services counselor. 

Hunter wants to make sure students are “persisting to graduation,” and said McKnight is doing a fine job of it so far. 

“He knows what he wants, and he wants to thrive in all aspects,” Hunter said. “But at the same time, he wants to be challenged, to ensure that he is being the best that he can be.”

Francisco McKnight said he’s playing it safe to avoid contracting the coronavirus

Strict Upbringing Reaps Results 

McKnight’s focus and discipline arise from his upbringing, which stressed getting his homework done and making realistic decisions, said his mother, Shantal Ferrell.   

“He’s very self-driven and motivated,” she said. “We’ve taught him how to be resilient against anything, because the world is not friendly.”

A working mother of three younger children, Ferrell said the Challenge Scholarship has been a blessing financially for her family. She and her husband, Donnis Thomas, both lost jobs due to the pandemic, she said, though she intends to revive her business, Savor the Flavor, a flavored egg-roll catering service.

“That program has brought so many opportunities in front of him, and has exposed him to many different things. I am very grateful for that.” 

She is also confident her son will complete his college degree, which she was unable to do because of pregnancy. “I am beyond proud and excited just to see him grow and become his own man,” she said.

Virus ‘Not Something to Mess With’

McKnight got a head start on that by getting an apartment in Murray Living Center, primarily reserved for returning and graduate students. He and his roommate have a kitchen and their own bedrooms, enabling them to cook their meals and maintain social distance – an ideal residence for staying in place.

“I didn’t want to stay in a dorm with a lot of people,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I could be as safe as possible.” As of this writing more than 800 GVSU students have tested positive for the virus, according to the State of Michigan.

Even apart from the stay-home order, he’s been cautious in his social interactions so far, rarely leaving his apartment except for class, work and to fetch food. As for contracting the virus: “I try not to worry much about it, but I do keep in mind that it’s out there and it’s not something to mess with.”

He said he will abide by a new two-week “Staying Safe” order, effective Oct. 2, which continues mask requirements and limits informal social gatherings to four people inside and 10 outside. “To me it’s all about staying safe and protecting the people around you,” he said. 

‘There’s nothing else that really can stop me from achieving my goals.’

– Francisco McKnight, GVSU freshman

McKnight takes that pragmatic mindset to his arrival in college only to see football and other campus activities shut down. A former football player at Union, he’s exploring other ways to get involved, such as organizations for medical students and religious groups.

“Right now I am a little bummed, but things could be worse. I’m very grateful.” 

His focus remains on doing his work, getting his degree and moving on to “the great University of Michigan” for medical school. Beyond that, he hopes to become a surgeon, although sports medicine and physical therapy are options.

“I’ve got a lot of plans, in case one doesn’t work,” he said confidently. “But I’m shooting for the stars.” 


SNN story: Challenge Scholars near the finish line

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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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