Grand Rapids — In November 2017, then Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law an increase in Promise Zones that brought Grand Rapids into the mix.
Now, less than three years later, approximately 250 students from eligible high schools located in the City of Grand Rapids are attending Grand Rapids Community College for free thanks to the program, a “last dollar” scholarship that covers any remaining costs for a student after their federal or state need-based aid.
Jennifer Sosa Garnica is one of the 250, and one of approximately 160 graduates of Grand Rapids Public Schools. A 2020 graduate of City High, she still recalls when she first heard about the Promise Zone scholarships and the hope it gave her.
“I remember sitting in my government class,” she said, “when my teacher, Mr. (Wes) Tweedale started talking about GRCC trying to get funding for this scholarship for the many students attending GRPS. I felt like a weight came off my chest because I was worrying whether I had enough money for my first year of school, and if I could attend, but the first two years of school being free, it was a blessing.”
In addition to covering whatever costs a student has after their need-based aid, the program also includes a bookstore allocation based on level of enrollment. If they enroll in 12 or more credits, they receive a $500 per semester allowance; if fewer than 12, they get $250.
Private Funding Now, SET Down the Road
The primary funding mechanism for the Promise Zone scholarships is tax increment financing. The Michigan Promise Zone Authority Act authorizes the Grand Rapids Promise Zone Authority to capture half of the incremental growth of the State Education Tax within the City of Grand Rapids.The SET is a six-mill tax levied on all property in the state that has not been exempted for some other purpose.
The Michigan Promise Zone Authority Act also requires the GRPZA to fund the first two years of the scholarship through other means, and in Grand Rapids those other means are philanthropy. Thus, the Promise Zone scholarships are currently being funded from a pool of privately raised money that stands at $2.75 million raised with a goal of $3 million.
Promise Zone officials are projecting that the SET capture will cover the entire cost of the scholarship by year five.
In mid-October, that meant roughly $150,000 in tuition dollars for Promise Zone recipients and about another $50,000 in bookstore allocation dollars.
“It’s honestly the best,” Garnica said. “It has helped so much.When I was purchasing my books, the cost was so much money, and with COVID happening and losing my jobs for a bit, it came in clutch. I’m so grateful for this opportunity and encourage everyone to take advantage of it.”
A Resilience Forged by COVID
In addition to being part of the first cohort of Promise Zone scholarship recipients, she also was part of a nationwide graduating class that had its senior year disrupted by COVID-19.
“Senior year started with college applications, essays, personal statements, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), but nothing prepared me to finish senior year online,” she said. “Honestly, it was rough being away from people. I was really missing human interaction. Saying goodbye on video and seeing our graduation ceremony on YouTube wasn’t fun at all either.”
But that experience, she added, made her even more resilient.
“My attitude was pretty much the same before and during COVID,” said the always-determined freshman. “I promised myself I would try my best every day, and I stay motivated by organizing my life consistently and thinking about the goals and dreams I want to achieve.”
That attitude has carried over to her fall semester at GRCC.
“COVID forced me to take initiative, seek out help on how to fill out forms, sign up for classes and take the correct steps to be enrolled correctly. Beside the fact that I can’t fully meet my professors, join certain clubs, and meet people, in those aspects it’s been hard, but I have made things work.”
GRPS Promise Zone Students at GRCC
• C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy – 8
• Grand Rapids City High School – 21
• Grand Rapids Learning Center – 6
• Grand Rapids Montessori High School – 7
• Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy – 9
• Innovation Central High School – 45
• Ottawa Hills High School – 10
• Southeast Career Pathways – 4
• Union High School – 51
Inspired by Parents
Jennifer credits her father and mother, Marciano Sosa and Silvia Garnica, for her can-do attitude.
“I originally wasn’t accepted into City, but my mother fought for me to go to that school,” she recalled, “and when I got in, I decided I was going to try my best to make the most out of it. Every time I had a stressful day my mother made it better by motivating me with her stories. My mother didn’t have the greatest opportunities as a child, and she inspires me to follow my dreams.”
The oldest of five children, Garnica said that both her mother and father have provided inspiration over the years as to what it means to work hard and persevere. Her father works at a local restaurant, managing the kitchen and “making great food for others to eat,” she said.
She added: “What I have learned from them is hard work pays off and isn’t easy at all. Everything needs time and dedication if you really want the best results.”
‘I was worrying whether I had enough money for my first year of school … but the first two years of school being free, it was a blessing.’— Jennifer Sosa Garnica, GRCC freshman
Garnica also credited her experiences at City for who she is now as a GRCC student. She plans to study business and then transfer to a four-year institution, with her sights set on the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.
“My experience at City High was one to remember,” she said. “Inside the classroom, it was stressful, but I honestly believe it has set me up in all the right ways to be a college-ready student. I think City really taught me to ponder and think about the future, what I can make out of it, how to achieve it.”