Jackelyn Nguyen’s parents immigrated from Vietnam so their children could have a life in the United States with previously unthinkable opportunities, and she knew a college degree would open doors to opportunities her parents’ sacrifices had unlocked.
A higher education seemed like a given. But Nguyen, born in Colorado, said she didn’t know how she was going to afford it, how to fill out the complicated applications or how to deal with the confusing financial aid forms. She didn’t know what she was going to do once she got there. She wasn’t sure which institution to choose.
“My parents sacrificed everything for me so this (going to college) is the least I’m going to do,” Nguyen said. “But being first-generation, my parents didn’t know about college and my siblings didn’t know. I was paving my own path. It was uncharted territory.”
Nguyen was among the more than 8,270 Denver Public School students awarded scholarship money from the Denver Scholarship Foundation since the fall of 2007. The foundation, created in 2006 with the help of philanthropists Tim and Bernadette Marquez who wanted to increase Denver’s college attainment, is celebrating its 15th anniversary as a force in boosting college access for local students.
DSF offers a nationally-recognized three-part program: Working with DPS seniors in their schools to help them apply for college; providing students with college scholarships; and partnering with Colorado universities to offer support services such as tutoring and mentorship for students.
Since 2015, 82% of DSF scholars have enrolled in college or graduated with a degree or certificate, according to the foundation. That compares to 56% of Colorado’s 2019 high school graduates enrolling in postsecondary education the fall after graduation, according to a 2021 report by the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
Nguyen discovered DSF through her Abraham Lincoln High School counselor who encouraged her to get involved with the foundation. The program helped her obtain scholarships for her time at the University of Colorado Denver and the University of Denver where she graduated with her bachelor’s degree and a Master of Business Administration degree with consistent DSF advising along the way.
“I went from someone who wasn’t very sure of herself to ‘No, I’ve got this,” Nguyen said.
The foundation’s early days
DSF started in 2006 as a pilot project, setting up headquarters called Future Centers in South, Montbello and Abraham Lincoln high schools where college advisors met with students at the schools to open their minds to the possibility of college and walk them through the application and financial aid process.
The Marquezes teamed up with former Mayor John Hickenlooper and then-DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet to determine how to make higher education a reality for all DPS students.
Conversations among the group led to a $50 million pledge from the Marquez’s to launch DSF, which has grown into an operation beyond what staffers could have dreamed up 15 years ago, they said. Donors, grants and the Prosperity Denver Fund — a .08% sales tax increase Denver voters approved in 2018 to boost college enrollment and degree completion — keep the foundation operating.
Today, DSF operates 14 Future Centers serving 21 DPS high schools.
Renae Bellew, a DPS graduate with a passion for helping students like herself, got a job advising students in the foundation’s early stages in 2007 after working as a college adviser at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Bellew, the first in her family to go to college, said she was thrilled at the prospect of giving back to the school district that raised her. She worked as a DSF adviser at John F. Kennedy High School — her alma mater — mentoring students.
“Many are the first in their families to go to college and haven’t engaged in a lot of conversations about going to college,” Bellew said.
College “culture shock”
Bellew met then-senior Derrek Sandoval at the 2008 John F. Kennedy High School homecoming parade who said she asked him to check out the school’s Future Center and meet with her to talk about college. Bellew would guide him through his academic career from start to finish.
“She held my hand throughout the entire college process from college applications, telling me about scholarship opportunities, helping me navigate the financial aid, all the way up through making sure my college housing was accurate, that I can afford everything, making sure I was involved on campus and things of that sort,” said Sandoval, also the first in his family to attend college at the traditional age. His father graduated from college in his mid-30s.
Bellew said she gave Sandoval the tools to get to college, answering his questions and listening to him. She took him and others on college visits and said she was thrilled to watch his journey unfold.
Sandoval set his sights on Colorado State University, but struggled in his first semester and was placed on academic probation, he said.
“It was a huge culture shock,” Sandoval said of college. “As the first traditional male of color in my family to set foot in a predominantly white campus, that was just kind of scary in itself. People didn’t look like me, talk like me, dress like me, which made the transition a little difficult. I felt like maybe I’m not smart enough, maybe I don’t belong here. Those thoughts are when I started to suffer academically. I called Renae.”
Bellew said she helped him get involved in mentoring and tutoring underserved youth and connected him with with El Centro, a Latinx community center on campus.
More than 60% of DSF scholars and graduates are Hispanic, according to the foundation. Less than half of Hispanic students who graduated from a Colorado public high school in 2019 enrolled in postsecondary education, according to Colorado Department of Higher Education data from 2021. Part of the foundation’s mission is to shrink Colorado’s equity gaps — the disparities between students of color and low-income learners and their counterparts — when it comes to college enrollment and graduation.
Mentoring creates a new mentor
His experience led Sandoval to mentoring and tutoring underserved youth.
“I really found my passion of working with students, and it was like “Hey, I want to be Renae,’ ” Sandoval said. “I wanted to help students with their career aspirations and help them accomplish their dreams like she helped me… I wanted to be there for them like she was for me.”
Sandoval is now the assistant director of the TRIO talent search, which empowers low-income, first-generation students to complete high school and enroll in and complete postsecondary education. He works with students at the Fred N. Thomas Career Education Center Early College, North High School and West Campus.
“Derrek is a hard worker,” said Bellew, now DSF’s senior program director. “He shows up for students so authentically because he knows their stories. He’s been in their shoes. He’s intimately familiar with their nervousness and uncertainty.
The rewards of such work can be slow to develop, Bellew cautioned.
“It takes a long time to build trust and relationships and a long time for students to enroll and getting them through graduation could take four or five years to see the fruits of your labor,” she said.
More than 80% of DSF scholars have stayed in college or graduated, Bellew said, but noted that percentage means 20% slipped through the cracks.
“We haven’t arrived at our final destination and haven’t seen our greatest outcomes yet, so that’s why I’m still here,” she said.
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