Elizabeth Cheng’s father was driven from Cambodia by genocide. Her mother was driven from Vietnam by war. Whenever possible, the CU Denver student tries not to add stress to her parents’ lives—especially not with money.
“I’ve tried to be as financially independent as possible from a young age,” said Cheng, who will graduate in May with a biology major and plans to go to medical school. “ During undergrad, I balanced a full-time course load with a full-time job at times.”
But what tipped the scales for Cheng was a scholarship from the Denver Scholarship Foundation (DSF), which covered a portion of her tuition and included individualized college counseling from DSF advisors.
On the morning of March 31, Cheng spoke at a first-ever awards event honoring her and the 318 other DSF scholars at CU Denver.
The CU Denver Office of Advancement and the CU Denver Scholarship Services & Programming Office organized the awards breakfast to celebrate CU Denver’s DSF scholars and to recognize 15 graduating seniors in that group with honor cords. As students, staff and faculty members ate scrambled eggs and nibbled croissants, Cheng expressed her gratitude at the podium.
“I want to say thank you to all of the people at DSF for all the help you’ve given me over the years and for all the students you’ll be helping in the future,” she said.
Established in 2006, DSF helps students from Denver Public Schools (DPS) go to college by providing tools, knowledge and financial resources. The organization works with 32 partner schools, of which CU Denver is one of the largest.
“Our goal is for every DPS kid to go to college, period,” said DSF CEO Nate Easley, PhD. “We have funded 5,500 DPS college grads so far, and we can’t do this without the partnership of schools like CU Denver.”
As Easley spoke, students around the room listened, many of them wearing black university hoodies with “Scholar” written on the back. One of them, Mercy Olaka, said she has valued the support she has received from DSF, because as a first-generation student, she cannot always look to her parents for guidance in college-related decision-making. The public health major said being a DSF scholar also just feels good.
“I appreciate the acknowledgement that comes with this honor,” she said. “It means someone sees my aspirations and my potential and has granted me the opportunity to do what I want to do.”
CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell affirmed Olaka’s sentiments as she addressed the scholars.
“You come here every day with a sense of passion, purpose and perseverance that is unstoppable,” she said. “I applaud you.”
At the end of the program, Horrell announced the winner of the DSF Student of the Year Award: Gerardo Banuelos, who plans to graduate in fall 2017 and who happened to be the emcee for the event.
“Based on statistics, I really shouldn’t be in college,” Banuelos told the audience as he accepted his award. “I’m really thankful for DSF and all that it’s given me.”
For Cheng, Olaka, Banuelos and the hundreds of other CU Denver DSF scholars, the path wasn’t always easy. But through DSF, they not only could get help, they had to.
“Because you’re required to meet with your advisor each semester, you’re forced to get the help you need,” Cheng said. “I was raised to be independent, so I didn’t like reaching out for help, but it became a blessing in disguise.”
Life still isn’t stress-free for Cheng and her family. While she and her siblings and mother live in Colorado, her father lives in New York, where he can find work. And right now the Medical College Admission Tests loom ahead of her. But because of DSF, she doesn’t feel alone.
“The DSF scholarship program helps students get to where they want to be in their life,” she said. “Depending on your background, if you don’t have that support already, it’s a great feeling to know that there’s someone who is there for you.”