Creating a Level Playing Field

Scholarships help transform lives of young people of color

Joe Corley describes his application essay for a Page Education Foundation scholarship as "a plea."

"My parents are both deceased, so I’m an orphan. The Page Foundation gave me my shot to use what I have been given," said the sophomore from south Minneapolis.

The 19-year-old Corley is making good use of that shot at success. A business major, he co-owns a restaurant with his stepfather. "That’s where I am when I’m not at school," he said. While being a business owner is "a lot of responsibility," Corley loves working for himself. He plans on taking more entrepreneurship and other business-related courses at St. Thomas to improve the restaurant’s future. "You always want to get bigger, to get ahead," he said.

Unfortunately, success stories like Corley’s are the exception rather than the rule, according to Minnesota Associate Supreme Court Justice and NFL Hall of Fame pro football player Alan Page. During his induction speech into the Football Hall of Fame in 1988, Page announced the establishment of the Page Education Foundation, whose mission is to "increase participation of Minnesota’s minority youth in postsecondary education."

Page described the "quiet crisis" facing young people of color, especially African-American youth: teachers who "give up" on minority students or don’t demand high academic achievement, parents who are so stressed or feel hopeless themselves that they do not make education a priority, and the lure of crime and drugs.

"Hopes and dreams should not be limited by economic circumstances," said Page. "Look at my own situation. My family could not afford to send me to Notre Dame but, because I was blessed with athletic ability, I got a scholarship. My experiences at Notre Dame forever changed my life for the better. We hope to replicate that experience for every Page Scholar."

To do so, the foundation provides two essential ingredients for prospective college graduates: financial aid and hope. Scholarship recipients are selected on the basis of their high school work, an essay on the importance of education and a proposed service project. Amy Hanson Anderson, M.A. ’95, volunteers several hours each spring reading through the applications.

"I truly am amazed at the kind of adversity kids face and yet they still have so much enthusiasm and hope for the future. I always come away inspired — and humbled," she said.

During the 1999-2000 academic year, more than 400 young people of color — including 36 St. Thomas students — received scholarships ranging from $750 to $2,500. Their service projects center on returning to their communities to encourage other young people to consider higher education.

"We reach out to students who don’t realize their potential," Maria Nguyen, a senior marketing and finance major from Brooklyn Park, says of the Page Scholars’ role in the community. Nguyen’s 50 hours of volunteer work last year involved tutoring first- through third-graders in reading at St. Paul’s Expo Elementary School. She tries to help her charges stay out of trouble, acting as a role model and mentor. "I let them know what I’ve accomplished and what education has done for me," she said.

It’s this belief in education as a transformative force that inspired Page to form the foundation and drives him to visit high schools around the state to speak with young people.

"Education gives children choices. It gives them the tools to handle the challenges life throws them," he said. "We must keep young people engaged with learning long enough to recognize and be prepared to take advantage of opportunities, because without preparation, opportunity is an empty promise."

Nguyen knows that the promise of a college education would not have been possible without financial help. Her parents, a homemaker and a mechanic, now disabled, are refugees from Vietnam. Neither has a high school education, al-though Nguyen’s mother was a teacher in her homeland. "I will be the first generation to finish college," said Nguyen. "My parents are very supportive."

That support is invaluable, even after students of color get to college. Nguyen confesses that she "didn’t see many Asian faces" when she enrolled at St. Thomas three years ago. But, while "there is always room for improvement," she praises the university for aiming to be more culturally diverse. This fall’s entering class is 9 percent students of color, up two percentage points from five years ago.

Coming from a very diverse high school, Sou Vang knew that St. Thomas would be different. "There aren’t many minorities at St. Thomas," Vang explained. Still, he cites meeting new people, particularly those of other nationalities, as one of the best experiences he’s had thus far. "All the students are very friendly. It feels like home."

A native of Laos, Vang chose St. Thomas over Macalester College, the University of Minnesota and Moorhead State University because of the friendly environment and low teacher-student ratio. "My professors are really helpful," he said.

One of seven children, Vang immigrated to the United States in 1986 at the age of five. He applied for a Page Education Scholarship because it seemed like "a great way to give back to the community" while advancing his education. During the academic year, Vang returns weekly to Edison High School to help students with their computer skills. He plans to major in computer science and pursue a career as a programmer.

Lynn Pham of Maple Grove agrees that St. Thomas is a friendly place. Although she doesn’t have many Asian-American peers, "when I’m around others, I don’t think about being different. I don’t think I’m treated any differently than anyone else at St. Thomas."

An outgoing young woman, Pham realized early on how important it was to become involved in campus activities. "That’s where friendships and bonds with faculty form," she explained. "Being involved makes UST a better place to go to school." She is active in the Liturgical Choir, the Student Alumni Council and the Tutor-Mentor program.

The opportunity to work with elementary school children solidified her choice of a double major in elementary education and communication. "I’ve always wanted to be a teacher," she said. She has used her Page Scholar community service projects as a way to implement her philosophy of teaching.

"Last year, I helped one student all year. He had been labeled as ‘at-risk.’ The more I worked with him, the more I found out that that label wasn’t true," she said. "I think it’s important to notice the individual needs and personalities of students, and not do something general."

With four years of Page Education Foundation and other scholarships and an on-campus job helping students and faculty set up voice mail accounts, Pham will be only $6,000 in debt when she graduates next May. Not bad for the youngest of five children, whose parents came to this country from Vietnam 25 years ago.

Like Pham, Sou Vang is grateful for the financial help he receives, and he is ready to take a leadership role. "My parents are senior citizens. It’s our [my brothers’ and sisters’] responsibility to take care of them now.