Solving the stubborn achievement gap won’t happen over one Mexican dinner. But table talk is proving to be a successful ingredient in giving low-income students a fair shot at college.
“It was too hot for me,” joked 49-year-old Peter Wilhoit of St. Paul, referring to the spicy meal he shared recently with Alberto Vergara-Zuniga and the 20-year-old’s parents, who emigrated from Mexico.
Vergara-Zuniga, a sophomore at St. John’s University, is studying the sciences and thinking big, thanks largely to Wilhoit, who wants his philanthropic outreach to be more than “just writing a check.”
“I like to see results,” said Wilhoit, a St. Paul-based wealth manager who was matched with Vergara-Zuniga through Wallin Education Partners.
The Twin Cities-based nonprofit is a college-completion program with a unique twist. Donors and scholars are encouraged to establish close ties, and most do, texting about grades and the normal stresses of college life, sharing meals, meeting each other’s families and celebrating graduations and weddings.
The result? More than 92 percent of Wallin scholars graduate from four-year colleges.
In addition, 40 percent of Wallin scholars reported no college debt in 2015. And the average debt load for those who had any was $17,000, compared with $31,000 for other Minnesota graduates.
“We happen to have some of the best results in the country,” said Wallin Education Partners development director Stela Osmancevic Center, a former Wallin scholar herself.
The desire to connect on a deeper level with the recipients of one’s giving is no surprise to Cody Switzer, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Chronicle of Philanthropy.
“This does track with a trend we’re seeing overall, which is that donors want more information about what their impact will be,” said Switzer, noting the soaring growth of crowdfunding and similar grass-roots fundraising.
“With the crowdfunding trend, you are giving directly to a person and are deeply connected with their success. This is an amazingly strong way to build relationships and a really fulfilling experience for donors.”
He added, “If the experience is strong, I would expect them to give again.”
Wallin Education Partners was founded by Winston and Maxine Wallin, who first gave scholarships in 1992 at Minneapolis South High School, his alma mater. Today, the organization partners with 28 Twin Cities area high schools and has added other donor partners who offer named scholarships.
The $23,000 award equals $4,000 a year in scholarship aid, plus another $1,750 a year in one-on-one advising and career services. To qualify, Twin Cities high school seniors need at least a B average, a score of 19 out of 36 on the ACT, and a family income of less than $75,000 a year, although the average family income is less than $25,000.
Students may use their Wallin Education Partners scholarships at one of the country’s historically black colleges or at a school in Minnesota or in one of five neighboring states.
But it’s the personal connections with donors that often mean the most to scholars, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. That includes Center, who came to Minnesota as a Bosnian refugee at age 14, not speaking any English. After graduating from Edison High School, she headed to the University of Minnesota and earned a bachelor’s degree in global studies.
Her Wallin sponsors, Joan and Ron Cornwell, were among the treasured guests at her 2012 wedding.
Likewise, Precious Drew is deeply grateful to John and Kelly Henry, Minneapolis parents of two young children who, like Wilhoit, wanted to support a first-generation college student in a personal way.
“It’s not that our families don’t want to give us support,” said Drew, 20, a business major at the College of St. Benedict, “but I can’t really go to my parents to ask about college.”
At a new-scholar reception in 2014, the Henrys met Drew and her parents, “and we were blown away by her determination and energy,” said Kelly, a graduate of the U’s Carlson School of Management who works with start-ups.
John, who works in sales, agrees. “When you meet her, you want to hang out with her.”
The Henrys are so bullish on the program that they’ve started encouraging their friends to support Wallin scholars of their own.
Drew graduated from Edison High School, where she started a business through Junior Achievement, selling custom-made scarves using cotton fabrics from local thrift stores. She made $500, which she donated to a breast cancer organization, a military group and her high school.
When a representative from Wallin came to Edison, Drew didn’t really know how to describe herself. Now she does.
“I’m somebody who wants to eventually give back,” said Drew, who’s on a semester abroad in London.
She and the Henrys did a delicate dance at first. Drew, one of nine children and the first to go to college, was adjusting to the culture shock of “coming from an inner-city school with 40 countries represented” to the largely white, liberal-arts-focused St. Benedict. The Henrys wanted to be helpful, but not overbearing. “I didn’t want her to feel she had any added pressure from us,” Kelly said.
They’ve found a nice rhythm, getting together for lunch on occasion and e-mailing to connect about how college is going. Kelly hopes she might have a job for Drew next summer.
“It’s about who you know,” Drew said with a smile.
Similarly, Wilhoit checks in with Vergara-Zuniga every few months and texts on occasion “to see if St. John’s beat St. Thomas.” And he sure doesn’t turn down an opportunity to share a warm meal with his student’s “salt-of-the-earth” family.
“I’ve left it up to him,” Wilhoit said, referring to how often they connect. “I don’t want him to feel like there is any type of commitment. He’s a smart kid, and this is an opportunity for him to go to college.”