While hospitalized with severe dehydration, her heart pounding abnormally fast, all Theresa Russell could think about was getting back to school. “I love school. I have big goals. School, it just matters,” she explained during a decidedly calmer moment in The University of Findlay’s Alumni Memorial Union.
Russell is a UF sophomore, but this fall semester marks her first time on campus. How she got here, and her plans for the future, are anything but ordinary.
Assertive and driven about her education, she graduated from high school a year early. Also distinguishing her are her statuses marking financial firsts for an organization and an institution – she is one of the first 50 students chosen to participate in the Dayton Foundation’s College Promise Program, and she is the first in that cohort to attend UF.
Launched in 2010, the program helps low-income Montgomery County students graduate from college debt free. Beginning in 8th grade, certain students who show potential for academic success are paired with mentors and provided with full college scholarships to Ohio schools that have agreed to be program partners. The students and their caregivers must sign pledges pertaining to scholastic commitment, and must meet the entry requirements of the partner colleges and universities. More information about the program and foundation can be found at www.daytonfoundation.org.
The Centerville High School graduate from a single-parent household was all in from the start. The program pays for students to receive bachelor’s degrees. Russell, who is interested in landing a job in the medical field, intends to go further. She is majoring in pre-med and wants to become an anesthesiologist. She considered careers in gynecology and pharmacy, but decided they are too narrowly focused. “With anesthesiology, I feel like I’m able to be involved in all fields, because the surgeons need you, the OBGYNs need you, the dentists, everybody. Everyone will look forward to seeing my face! I just think that’s awesome,” she said.
Meticulous consideration and research are hallmarks of Russell’s career-planning approach. She began focusing heavily on her studies in middle school, and enrolled in honors classes. An older friend who became a parent at 19 inspired her to seek work that will one day financially and intellectually support her own family, which she also undoubtedly wants. “I can’t be rich and not share!” she joked.
Before arriving at Findlay, Russell attended Dayton’s Sinclair Community College, where she strategically enrolled in courses that would enhance her academic progress at a four-year institution. Having educated herself on the particulars of credit transfers, she purposefully did not take core science courses, she said. “I’m not going to take a class as hard as biology or chemistry and then have to take it over again. That’s just wasting time and money. So I did my studying. I did the Ohio Transfer Module. I would sit online for hours making sure I was doing everything right,” she noted.
Gary Smiga, the executive director of the College Promise Program and Russell’s mentor, characterized her as “a hard worker with a clear vision. She’s very motivated. She has avoided getting dragged down by the people who want to drag you down. She’s done a good job of managing those pressures,” he said.
Russell would also say she’s done well at forging ahead despite advice that urged more caution. “I went to a community college. I know what that’s like and I want more. I’m very determined,” she said. “Nobody thought I should graduate high school early. They’d say, ‘you’re just going to be 17.’ But I did it. I did it. And I haven’t gotten anything but opportunities, honestly, since then.”
Russell said she loves attending UF. “Everybody cares about you,” she maintained. She’s enjoying living on campus and is scrutinizing other opportunities here, such as travelling abroad and undergraduate research. She has cultivated a group of friends, many of them pharmacy students with the same rigorous scholarly goals, and tries to “take Friday and Saturday nights to be a human” by dialing down her studying.
Her next big decision will hinge on whether to pursue a master’s degree at UF or aim for medical school at an institution located in a larger city. Many medical schools begin taking applications during students’ junior years, she said, so she must make wise choices about courses that will conform to advanced degree programs.
The 18-year-old is also aware that she is always serving as a College Promise Program ambassador, and that her family is confident in her success. “I’ve got to make Gary proud, make everybody proud,” she said.
“I’m really thankful for my scholarship,” Russell concluded. “I don’t think a lot of people are appreciative for a lot of things they have. But I’m super thankful for the opportunity, to be blessed with it.”
UF became a College Promise school because it is committed to a strong, vibrant, multicultural campus experience, and the program is a critical piece of that. Rebecca Butler, UF’s vice president of enrollment management, participated as a program mentor. She grew up in the Dayton suburb of Trotwood, a community that she said “cared about its young people and instilled in us the value of paying it forward,” and coincidentally where Russell attended middle school. Butler previously worked at Sinclair Community College, where its president emeritus was the program’s founder. Mentoring, she said, “is life-changing, because it’s absolutely not one-way mentoring. You grow and shape each other. While the needs and issues might be different, the fact is that there is no way you leave this type of mentoring experience the same person as you were when you started. You leave a far better person.”
Butler said UF’s partnership with the College Promise Program simply makes sense. “The University of Findlay has a rich tradition in nurturing students in achieving their fullest potential. Our culture is familial and caring, the very type of environment that a College Promise scholar would find welcoming. In addition, UF is committed to a vibrant and diverse campus culture and the College Promise scholars add a wonderful complement to our campus,” she said.
The University of Findlay will provide scholarships annually to a select number of College Promise students, Butler said.