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At the start of last year, the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program launched its two-year pilot expansion initiative with the hope of serving its recipients in a more holistic manner. The program is targeted toward individuals who have financial need, are among the first in their families to attend college, demonstrate leadership aptitude and have an interest in community service. The pilot is now halfway completed, and aims to continue developing its resources for students.

The expansion emphasized five main areas: intentional cohort recruitment, substantial financial support, unique programming and resources, community-building through alumni outreach and systematic evaluation.

Program Director Gail Gibson explained the expansion was established to better meet the mission of ensuring students’ ability to thrive socially, academically and emotionally on campus.

“We’re really thinking through how we can extend our reach and help students thrive while they’re at Michigan, as well as when they leave here and go on to whatever comes next and what that looks like with scholarship support but also with wrap-around resources to fill in other kinds of gaps,” Gibson said.

Gibson further explained how of the many changes the program hopes to develop; the prioritization of first-generation students — through intentional cohort recruitment — is one of the most important factors.

“One of the first changes, was to prioritize first-generation students, which we define as students whose parents attended some college but who don’t have a four-year bachelor’s degree,” Gibson said. “That focus on first-generation student distinguishes the program among scholarship programs at Michigan.”

Gibson also said the program was taking actionable steps to meet the goal by carefully selecting applicants based on their need and leadership inclination. According to the Kessler Presidential Scholars 2017 Annual Report, all scholars in the 2017 cohort were first-generation. 

“We are doing really intentional recruitment of who comes into the scholarship program, which means going back after students are admitted to read through application material to see who has the inclination and capacity for serving communities because our goal is to create a community of students that supports one another while they’re here but are committed to giving back in their own lives and careers on the outside,” Gibson said.

The program offered its first awards in 2008 and since has grown to become one of the largest scholarship program in LSA. Today, the University supports 172 Kessler scholars and welcomes 35 individuals into the program annually.

LSA senior Ashley Olney expressed her appreciation for the program as a Kessler scholar and its efforts to help students through its scholarships and resource

“I’m overall very appreciative because it is a need-based and a merit-based scholarship, so I wouldn’t be able to attend the University of Michigan without it, and it’s also a great community,” Olney said. “So not only are they helping students financially to get to school, they’re helping to integrate us into such a large university.”

Gibson emphasized Olney’s statement and described the program’s continued dedication to providing sufficient financial support along with additional resources.

"It’s money that makes coming to Michigan possible, but again it’s not money alone,” Gibson said. “It’s paired with wrap-around support, whether it’s one-on-one counseling with staff or whether it’s a workshop about getting ready for the professional job search.”

Olney also noted the program’s expansion efforts seeking to establish a stronger community among the scholars.

“I think they’re really trying to create more of a community within the Kessler Scholars Program,” Olney said. “My entire four years they’ve offered a couple of social and academic events each month, but they wanted to foster with a greater and tighter community because we are a pretty small scholarship group here on campus.”

Additionally, Olney said she — along with other Kessler scholars — were invited to participate in focus groups over the summer. During the sessions, students were asked what resources they would have liked to have upon entering the University. Olney praised the program for taking the initiative to better understand the needs of students.

“I think they were really proactive in creating focus groups and asking students specifically what they would want if they had the chance to come in as a Kessler scholar all over again, or what they would like moving forward if they had a couple more years here,” Olney said.

One of the programs that developed as a result of the focus group was a peer mentorship program. Kessler scholars are paired with an older student in the program and are instructed to meet biweekly to offer support to one another. Olney discussed her excitement for the new initiative and how it offered a way to make a campus as large as the University’s seem a lot smaller.

“It was something that I wish I had coming in because I went to a really small high school and transitioning into life at U of M, where there were more people in my dorm than in my entire town, was very difficult, academically it was very difficult and socially it was very difficult,” Olney said. “I wish I had someone who would check in on me who was in the same position that I was. Even now, even though I am not being mentored, I am a mentor, it’s something that makes me really appreciative of the Kessler Scholarship.”

Kessler scholar Michelle Figueroa, an LSA freshman, shared Olney sentiments and explained how her mentor helps her to better prepare for the University’s academic endeavors.

“My mentor is amazing, and she takes similar classes to mine and we have similar majors,” Figueroa said. “So she kind of walks me through how to prepare for my classes because she’s took them already, so that’s been really helpful.”

One of the other ways the program is seeking to develop a community while also offering students more resources is through various workshops and seminars that are mandatory for first-year students to attend. Most recently, it hosted one about finances and budgeting and featured Detroit-based financial planner Gail Perry-Mason. Additionally, they have stress-management services and “Walk-In Wednesday,” a weekly time for students to speak to administrators, among other resources to help students with their mental health.

Kessler scholar Donnell Williams, an LSA freshman, expressed his appreciation for the stress-management services in particular, because adjusting to the University setting can be overwhelming.

“The stress-management ones are helpful,” Williams said, “College can be pretty stressful, especially when you’re a first year and you’re just adapting to the environment that you’re in, it helps a lot.”

Though many of the Kessler scholars have been pleased with the results of the first-year expansions, Gibson acknowledges the program still has room to grow — especially with regard to connecting students with campus resources.

“One thing we know we could do better is how we connect students with existing resources,” Gibson said. “At a big school like Michigan, that’s a constant puzzle, but we’ve built interesting partnerships with the Science Learning Center, we’re working really closely with the opportunity hub, we’re getting students into the places that can give them the best support.”

Olney also touched on the issue of accessibility and explained how even though she was impressed with all the events hosted by the program, the timing often conflicted with her class schedule.

“I’m a screen arts and culture major and because of that I have screenings throughout the week in the evening,” Olney said. “Although Kessler scholars have a lot of really great social, academic and networking events, they’re all held Mondays … when I have class, so I’m not able to go to any of them so I can’t access all the great resources that they’re providing for their students.”

In the future, the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program seeks to continue growing through its new partnership with the Comprehensive Studies Program. Beginning next fall, the incoming cohort will take a one credit seminar together to explore how to make the most of the University.

Gibson said she hoped the commonality of the course among the new members will help to establish a sense of community.

“Our goal is creating community, and we think that one way to enhance that from the start to build this extra layer of support is to allow them to have some sort of shared educational experience,” Gibson said.

As for Figueroa, she hoped to continue to share more about the program and its mission with the rest of the University community moving forward.

“A lot of people don’t know what Kessler scholars are, and (I wish to) show people what we really do.” Figueroa said. “It’s not just a support system financially, it’s also a support system emotionally and academically.”

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