Skip to main content

GV Now

Students thank couple responsible for scholarship programs

  • group of people standing outside
  • three people at table laughing
  • man shaking hands with student
  • woman at podium
  • woman at podium
  • woman and man seated in front row

Posted on October 14, 2019

More than 100 Grand Valley students met and thanked the Detroit couple responsible for helping to fund their education during an event October 14 at the L. William Seidman Center on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus.

Bob and Ellen Thompson and the Thompson Foundation have funded Grand Valley's largest scholarship program since 2011. The Thompson Working Family Scholarship targets working families who struggle financially to send their children to college. More than 700 Grand Valley students have received TWFS since the program's inception. 

Cohorts of students who receive TWFS must reach an 80 percent graduation rate within six years. In 2017, the Thompsons expanded the reach by offering $5,000 annual scholarships to 125 students, including 25 transfers from Michigan community colleges. 

Brianna Smith, a senior from West Olive who is majoring in biology, said receiving a TWFS has significantly reduced her debt. 

"The Thompsons have a special place in my heart," Smith said. "I do not have much college debt. I've been very lucky and very blessed to receive this scholarship."

The scholarship program requires students to write an essay when they apply. Smith saw that as an opportunity to say thank you to her mother, Jennifer Rubelman, who at times worked multiple jobs as a single parent and head of household.

"The essay was my opportunity to honor my mom and everything she has done for me," Smith said. "She worked multiple jobs before going back to school full time, sometimes getting three hours of sleep a night so that I can get to college."

President Philomena V. Mantella told the students who received the scholarship they have been set up for success in part because of the Thompsons. Stipulations of the TWFS include a match from the university and academic services to support students.

"I want you to really feel both the opportunity and joy, and the responsibility as you sit here today," Mantella said. "I want us to thank the Thompsons and the foundation for their generosity and for their program design because your probability for success is way up there now."

Lynn "Chick" Blue, vice president for Enrollment Development, is responsible for facilitating the program and maintaining relationships with the couple and the foundation. Blue said the scholarship fills the gap working families find when funding education. 

The Thompsons and the Thompson Foundation have another scholarship program at Grand Valley that began in 2008 and focuses on assisting students from Detroit's University Preparatory Academy.

Bob Thompson addressed the scholars briefly. He credited his wife, Ellen, with bringing forth the idea of assisting students from working families. He also advised students to work hard, enjoy college, make lifelong friends and help others.

"We help others. You also can help others without spending any money," he said. "You can do things to help others, one-on-one, and make it happen. You're almost obligated by me to do that. Do what you can and someday I hope you'll look back and say, 'This changed my life.'" 

The Thompsons sold their asphalt company, Thompson-McCully, in 1999. Their focus on opening access to education for working families comes largely from their relationships with employees who used to work at their asphalt company.

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).