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'Promise' Scholarship Covers Tuition And Fees For 100 Rockford Students In First Year

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The college admissions process is complicated. It’s even trickier to maneuver miles of scholarship applications and financial aid packages when you’re learning remotely thanks to a global pandemic.

“It was a big mess to actually kind of dig through and try and find opportunities to get some financial burdens out of the way,” said Albert Mendez. He’s one of the students receiving the Rockford Promise scholarship in the first year of their NIU collaboration.

Last year, Rockford Public Schools announced the scholarship partnership with Northern Illinois University promising to pay tuition and fees to Rockford students. To qualify for the scholarship, students must meet a few criteria. They have to live in Rockford, attend Rockford Public Schools for all four years of high school and finish with a 3.0 or higher GPA.

Rockford Promise has been around for over a decade, but new funding from the city and a partnership with NIU took the program to a different scale. Last year, the program awarded a total of 30 scholarships, to students entering Rock Valley College and Rockford University. This year they gave out 150.

Tasha Davis is the executive director. She says even though getting students into college is a major part of this, it’s not the most important objective.

“Yay, we did it. We did the partnership, we got these kids in school,” she said. “And now it's time to get these kids across the graduation stage.”

She says 60% of their cohort is first-generation, low-income and/or minority. They also have refugee and DACA program scholars.

Mendez’s mom is a Mexican immigrant who has worked factory jobs to help his family get by. He says it was really hard financially and so he knows what an opportunity the scholarship presents.

“I feel like that's almost every parent's mission, like, I want to give them what I didn't have,” said Mendez. “I'm just trying to fulfill their mission right there.”

Most first-generation college students don’t graduate in four years. Retaining first-gen and minority students is much more difficult than bringing them to campus. Davis says scholarships are pointless if they don’t graduate.

“There are things that go beyond the financial barriers and that's where Rockford Promise comes into play,” she said.

They’re setting up each student with a mentor to help them through their academic and professional journey. She hopes they can facilitate internships too.

For Mendez, it already has. He’s studying business at NIU and was approached for an internship at a Rockford-based wealth management firm during a Rockford Promise fundraiser.

“He actually gave me and my friend Carlos an internship opportunity for the summer to work with Savant [Wealth Management],” he said.

Kalilah Chears is another NIU freshman getting a full-tuition scholarship through Rockford Promise. It’s been a bit challenging to adapt to college life so far. It’s bound to happen after spending an entire year learning remotely.

But she’s already met her mentor and even signed up to be a peer mentor herself.

“I'm kind of excited to be part of that. Coming back and helping the Rockford Promise community,” she said.

Even though she was never in the classroom with them, it was one of her teachers that first told her about the scholarships. Chears says NIU was already a top choice for her, but getting her tuition and fees covered sealed the deal.

For Tasha Davis at Rockford Promise, the goal is to be able to offer this to everyone who meets the criteria -- not just all who apply.

“At the moment, we're nowhere near that number that we can afford, according to the city funding. But I'm sure we will meet those numbers as the communication gets out to the community and to the young people inside of RPS 205,” said Davis.

The scholarship requirements are the same for Rockford University as they are with NIU -- and Rock Valley College only needs a 2.75 GPA.

The city of Rockford wants to devote revenue derived from the new casino to the program.

Rockford Promise helped send 100 freshmen to NIU this year, which makes up just under 5% of the school’s total cohort of new first-year students.

Davis hopes that number grows more and more every year, as more students discover the scholarship and the community continues to fund it.