When she was in the seventh grade, Brianna Smith traveled on a cruise with her family. It was on the high seas where Smith had an epiphany about what her life’s work would look like.
“I fell in love with the ocean and marine life. I loved seeing the dolphins,” said Smith, a senior who is majoring in biology with an emphasis on aquatic science. After graduating in April, Smith plans to move to Florida to pursue a master’s degree in marine biology at a university near Tampa.
Her plan is not atypical for soon-to-be graduates. The unusual piece of Smith’s story came at the start of her college career. If she hadn’t received a Thompson Working Families Scholarship (TWFS), Smith’s path to college and her debt load would look quite different. The TWFS targets students from working families who struggle to fund a college education.
Smith is one of 750 Grand Valley students to receive a TWFS, the university’s largest scholarship program. Detroiters Bob and Ellen Thompson established TWFS in 2011, first offering 15 students annual scholarships of $3,000, and increasing to 30 students per year in 2015.
In 2017, the Thompsons greatly extended the reach of their generosity by offering 125 students (including 25 transfer students from Michigan community colleges) annual awards of $5,000 each. The stipulations of the program include a matching award from Grand Valley, thus greatly reducing a student’s debt load.
“If it hadn’t been for this scholarship, I would have had to double my hours at Subway during my first year at Grand Valley,” Smith said. “Now, I do not have much debt at all. I’m very lucky and very blessed to have received this scholarship.”
The first Thompson scholarship
After 40 years in business, the Thompsons sold their asphalt company, Thompson-McCully, in 1999. The couple then formed the Thompson Foundation and cited its key mission as creating educational opportunities for urban youth and families with low incomes.
They delved quickly into that work and helped fund University Preparatory Academy High School, a charter school in Detroit that opened in 2000 and is authorized by Grand Valley. Former Grand Valley President Mark A. Murray served as a Thompson Foundation board member around that time and helped facilitate the university’s relationship with the couple and their foundation.
In 2008, the Thompsons established their first Grand Valley scholarship program, focused on assisting students who graduated from University Prep Academy.
Domonique Palmer graduated from University Prep, where a college-bound culture is emphasized. Palmer was so comfortable with the thought of being a college student she said she took it upon herself to complete her family’s necessary financial aid paperwork.
“I did everything right to prepare myself for college. Money was the biggest obstacle,” Palmer said.
Palmer and her twin sister, Monique Palmer, are the first two from their family to attend college. When they were accepted into Grand Valley, receiving the Thompson scholarship was a huge relief.
“I was not going to be able to go to college without this financial stability. When I work, I can spend money on other things, rather than putting it toward tuition,” Palmer said.
She will graduate in April with a bachelor’s degree in integrative studies and plans to pursue a master’s degree in student affairs leadership. Palmer said her aspirations are to help students much like herself.
“I would like to work with first-year students who come from limited incomes, and help them access college,” she said. “I want to work with people who don’t see themselves going to college.”
Filling the gap
Bob Thompson gave credit to Ellen for having the idea to establish TWFS. Their focus on opening access to education for children from middle-income families comes largely from their relationships with employees of Thompson-McCully.
“I see how long and hard some people work, and the dreams they have for their children,” said Ellen Thompson. “We’ve been fortunate and want to help the students realize those dreams.”
Lynn “Chick” Blue, vice president for Enrollment Development, called it a “swell idea” during a celebratory event in October with students and the Thompsons. Blue is responsible for facilitating the Thompson scholarships and maintaining relationships with the couple and the foundation.
“Yes, the families work but budgeting for higher education is difficult,” Blue said. “Through the Thompsons’ generosity, they are making up for the gap that families find in funding college educations.”
Scholarship was ‘godsend’
When Brianna Smith was in high school, her mother, Jennifer Rubelman, dreamed of a better life for her daughter and herself. At that time Rubelman worked in the factory at Gentex Corp., a high-tech electronics company in Zeeland. She earned an associate’s degree from Muskegon Community College then transferred to Grand Valley in 2011 to pursue a nursing degree.
“Being a single mother is hard and a struggle, but I was not going to allow that to stop me from succeeding in life,” Rubelman said. “Although working in a factory is an acceptable way to support a family, it was not for me.”
Rubelman fell into the gap Blue referenced when it came to helping fund her daughter’s college education. She said her annual salary at Gentex was slightly too high for Brianna to receive a lot of financial aid from Grand Valley. Then came news of the TWFS.
“Since my credit score was not the best at that time, getting a Parent PLUS loan was out of the question,” Rubelman said. “The Thompson Working Family Scholarship was a godsend.”
“With my tuition bill, it would have truly been a struggle as I had to quit my full-time job before I began my second semester of nursing school.”Jennifer Rubelman, parent of student who received a TWFS
She said the TWFS meant weight off her shoulders and the timing was perfect for Rubelman, who was a Kirkhof College of Nursing student during that time. Rubelman now works as a nurse at Holland Hospital.
“If Brianna had not received this scholarship, we would have had to pay more than $3,000 out of pocket. With my tuition bill, it would have truly been a struggle as I had to quit my full-time job before I began my second semester of nursing school,” Rubelman said.
President Philomena V. Mantella said Thompson scholars who do take out loans to pay for college do so at one-third the rate of other Grand Valley students. Having zero, or very low, debt gives students “a leg up” on success at the start of their careers, she said.
And the TWFS program design steers students toward success, Mantella said. The program stipulates academic support services for students and requires students to complete a community service component. The cohorts of students who receive a TWFS must reach an 80 percent, six-year graduation rate.
The Thompsons have established similar scholarship programs at Ferris State and Saginaw Valley State universities, and at Bowling Green State University in Ohio (their alma mater).
Ellen said she and Bob enjoy meeting scholarship recipients and reading their thank-you letters.
“I receive notes from those who have received Thompson scholarships, and they tell me they also want to give back some day,” she said. “Bob and I know the investments we’re making in these young people will pay hefty dividends in the future, not only in their lives, but in their communities.”