Supporting Underserved Students

Photo Sarah Whiting

I am originally from Bosnia, but because of the war I was forced to leave my home country with my family in 1994. We lived in three refugee camps for a year and a half before coming to the United States. During this time, I missed three years of school — most of sixth, seventh, and eighth grade.

I didn’t speak English. I chose to attend Edison High School in Minneapolis because it had a strong English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Needless to say, adjusting to a new country, a new language, and a new school at the same time was very challenging. My ESL teacher at Edison was the first person to talk with me about going to college. She was confident that I would go, in spite of my average grades. She saw what was possible for me long before I did.

That same teacher recommended that I apply for the Wallin Education Partners scholarship — a multi-year scholarship program for low-income students, with a focus on helping students graduate from college. I was accepted to the University of Minnesota and also received a Wallin scholarship. In my excitement, I did not realize how difficult it would be to finish college. I still had English language limitations and had not caught up on years of missed education. For example, I took a required math course four times before receiving a passing grade.

Through the Wallin program, I was able to build a relationship with donors who supported my scholarship. Suddenly, I had a network of people to encourage and reassure me that I was on the right path.

After a lot of hard work and many conversations with my Wallin advisor, I graduated in four years with minimal student loan debt. A few years later, with support of another mentor, I received a scholarship from Rotary International, and went on to obtain a master’s degree in international peace studies from the United Nations Mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica.

Giving Back

After working for several nonprofits, I was thrilled when an opportunity came up for me to work with Wallin. I joined Wallin as their director of development in 2015 and have served as deputy director for the past three years. I am a firm believer that higher education has the power to break cycles of poverty and provide long-term solutions to many societal issues we are facing. In my role I spend much of my time working with donors to ensure that we can support as many students as possible.

Wallin Education Partners is a college completion program that offers financial aid combined with professional advising, career programming, and access to networks throughout college and after graduation. We support Minnesota students who come from low-income backgrounds and who are pursuing two-year and four-year degrees. Today, Wallin serves over 1,500 Minnesota students. We partner with 68 high schools; most are located in the Twin Cities area. We also support students in Austin, Granite Falls, and Owatonna.

Room for Improvement

Nationally, students from all demographics graduate at a rate of about 65 percent. Low-income, people of color, and first- generation students graduate at a significantly lower rate.

The average graduation rate for students with Wallin mentorship, who often need six years to finish their baccalaureate degree, is around 90 percent.

In 2018, Wallin began working with students attending community colleges. Historically, degree completion rates have been even lower for these students. Wallin is seeing a significant graduation increase for students in our program as compared to others attending community colleges.

It is hard to believe that in this country, family income remains the most predictive indicator of college success. We don’t have to accept that.

We need to be proactive about solutions. The cost of higher education continues to increase. Systemic barriers prevent many students from succeeding in higher education.

The pandemic brought on many additional challenges. Most learning loss was recorded among students from low-income backgrounds. In addition, college enrollment rates, which have been declining for some time, decreased even further, especially among low-income students. With increased minimum wage, many students are choosing to work full time after high school.

A minimum-wage job might be a financial solution for some young people, but if the goal is to make a family- sustaining wage, most of those jobs in Minnesota require a post-secondary degree.

Minnesota is experiencing a significant workforce gap across industries. There are many reasons we have to make higher education degrees more attainable.

The Wallin program is an example of a solution that builds equity. It is not a transactional scholarship program that serves as a prize for good grades in high school. Rather, we work to remove barriers to success so that every student has what is needed to succeed in college and pursue career goals. We recently surveyed our alumni and learned that 98 percent of them believe that their children will go to college, with many already saving money for that higher education bill.

The Value of Mentorship

Having mentors, or knowing where to look for them, is not easy, which is why we help Wallin students build a network of people to support them along the way. Wallin employs advisors who talk to students about academic and career goals, mental wellness, sense of belonging, financial barriers, family obligations, time management, cultural implications, confidence, and more. While financial aid is important for student success, it is individualized attention and support that makes the difference.

More than 6,000 Wallin alumni are now working as educators, corporate executives, engineers, and entrepreneurs. I feel honored to count myself among these alumni.

I have especially seen the power that mentorship and support networks have throughout our lives — teachers, counselors, elders, family members. Everyone should have people in their network to help them reach high.

One of my mentors recently told me that the best way I can thank my past mentors is by paying it forward and mentoring someone myself. I would love to see all of us take this approach.

Whether it is believing in someone’s potential — and sometimes helping them believe it — or supporting organizations that help build equity, each of us has the power to make a meaningful difference in someone’s life