Last May, I graduated from the University of Colorado Denver with a bachelor’s degree in English summa cum laude. Since I was a first-generation college student, it was the first graduation ceremony I had ever attended. The Tivoli quad was a sea of black and gold as my fellow graduates and I congratulated each other and hugged proud parents, spouses and family members also sporting school colors.
While my education at CU Denver prepared me for many things, including graduate school and a career, I was caught off guard by how moved I was as I stood in that crowd of thousands.
Foremost in my mind was the support I received, both financial and social, that made my college career possible. Many of the faces in the crowd were fellow Reisher Scholarship recipients—and friends— and seeing them reminded me that if it weren’t for the Reisher Family Foundation, I would not have been there.
A rough road for a first-generation student
Although my parents wanted the best for me, the concept of college was outside of their experience. They passed along a love of reading, and taught me the value of hard work and how to find a decent job after I completed high school through homeschooling. By my mid-20s, I realized I wanted to attend college, but I had no idea what that involved: how to apply, how to pay for classes, or even what the differences were between an associate’s, a bachelor’s or a master’s degree.
Over the course of six years, I obtained an associate’s degree in horticulture from a community college while working full time. I also began to volunteer in my community by teaching English to adult immigrants. These experiences, combined with creative writing classes I took, whet my appetite for more. I wanted to complete a bachelor’s degree, but I was unsure and intimidated about the process.
As a first-gen student, you don’t know who to ask for help, and, even worse, you don’t know what to ask. While community college introduced me to college-level work, it also gave me a disproportionate amount of student loan debt compared to what I could earn with my associate’s degree. The idea of attending a university felt intimidating and financially out of reach.
Fortunately, through Internet searches about scholarships, I found CU Denver and the Reisher Scholars Program.
The Reisher Scholarship
The Reisher Scholars Program helps promising students with financial need and academic merit earn undergraduate degrees without additional debt. Potential applicants are selected based on their academic record from their first two semesters at CU Denver or at a community college, as well as their engagement with the community.
“There were (and still are) few scholarship opportunities for sophomores and transfer students,” explained Emily Stanley, senior scholarship officer at The Denver Foundation, “and the Reisher Scholars Program helps to fill that void, reducing the financial burden on the scholars so that they can continue their educational pursuits through graduation.”
The goals of the Reisher program stem from the experience of the founders, husband and wife Roger and Margaret Reisher, who were both first-generation college students. Roger Reisher enjoyed a successful banking career after graduating from the University of Colorado Boulder, including becoming the president of FirstBank. The family’s success, and their appreciation for the impact college had on their lives, moved them to create a scholarship fund in 2001 and to partner with The Denver Foundation to develop and expand the program.
As of 2016, The Reisher Scholars Program has donated $15.7 million dollars to help more than 1,100 Colorado students complete their college degrees. For the 2016-17 academic year, there are 300 Reisher Scholars at various Colorado universities who will go on to make their mark in the world. “Our scholars give back,” Stanley said. “They invent things, they boost the economy, and teach their own families about education, creating a ripple effect in our community.
More than just money
The Reisher Scholarship provides far more than financial resources to students in need. The program offers the crucial link to the college community that many first-generation students lack. In addition to the resources offered by CU Denver, Reisher Scholars have a peer mentor and a ready-made group of friends. Every semester, through outings to museums, volunteer work and a celebratory dinner, Reisher Scholars make friends and get to know the staff who support them and the program.
The end result is a tight-knit group of diverse students with a large pool of resources to draw on when they need encouragement or help in asking the right questions. For me, this support system made all the difference.
Because of my Reisher Scholarship, I was able to complete my junior and senior semesters at CU Denver in two years while working and volunteering. I bonded with fellow Reisher Scholars, other students and my excellent English professors. Through the connections I made at the university, I found two jobs, one at the Writing Center and one with University Communications, and both jobs have added to my abilities and confidence as a writer.
The Reisher Program introduced me to CU Denver students and staff who exemplify an enthusiasm for education and community that I want to emulate. I’m applying to MFA programs at grad schools across the country, and wherever my education, my writing and my career takes me, I will carry the passion and gratitude for education that I learned as a Reisher scholar.
The scholarship changed my life, and I don’t know where I’d be without it. For that I will always be grateful to the Reisher Family Foundation.
For more information about the Reisher Scholars Program, visit http://www.denverfoundation.org/Scholarships/Reisher-Scholars/Home.