When Iliana Argueta heads to Grand Valley State University this fall to pursue a degree in social work, she’ll take a permanent reminder of her two years at Grand Rapids Community College and her associate degree in Human Services, Education and Social Science.
That’s because when Argueta and a friend passed their GRCC algebra class, they immediately went out and got tattoos to celebrate the accomplishment!
“Algebra in high school was my only grade lower than a B,” she said. “But at GRCC, professor Mark (O’Donnell) was so great. His lectures were amazing, and he gave us so many tips. I got a B in the class, and I aced the final. My best friend and I both aced the exam, and we got tattoos to celebrate.”
Celebration has been a consistent theme for Argueta during her two years at GRCC.
She admitted, though, that her hometown community college was not originally on her radar as a student at West Catholic High School. She worked hard in school, got good grades and, after being accepted at Michigan State University, she felt like her efforts had paid off.
And then, a week before classes, she looked at her first bill and was overwhelmed.
“I thought ‘wow that’s a lot of money,’ and I just started crying,” she recalled.
She stayed one semester at MSU and then transferred to GRCC. It’s a choice she has never regretted, in part because she attends GRCC for free on a Grand Rapids Promise Zone scholarship.
“I wish I would have started here right away,” she said, a week before graduation. “I felt like GRCC was second-best. But that’s not the case at all. It’s academically rigorous; the professors are amazing, and with the Promise Zone, I don’t pay a single cent.”
Argueta is one of 15 students set to graduate this spring or summer as part of the Grand Rapids Promise Zone program – the first large group of graduates. Started in 2020, the Grand Rapids promise Zone is a “last-dollar” scholarship that covers up to 60 credit hours (30 credit hours for those 50% eligible), including the costs of tuition, books, required course materials and any required fees associated with attending GRCC. So far, 20 students are graduating through the program.
The Grand Rapids Promise Zone scholarship is available for students who live in Grand Rapids and graduate from one of the 25 public, public charter, or private high schools located within the city limits. Additional information is available at grcc.edu/promisezone, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and by phone at (616) 234-4321.
Argueta’s experience — not including the tattoo — is not unusual.
Ben Gillion, a graduate of West Michigan Aviation Academy, planned to join a branch of the military before finding out about the Promise Zone program from a school counselor.
His first thought was it sounded too good to be true. But as he explored it further, he realized the advantages he’d gain attending GRCC for free, and he became a student in the Criminal Justice program. He’s set to graduate from the Police Academy and is applying for jobs locally with a variety of agencies.
“I thought to myself, ‘Why not get a college degree for free?’” he said. “I don’t know where I would be without the Promise Zone program.”
New Grand Rapids Promise Zone director Ashlee Mishler loves hearing that kind of feedback from the almost 400 students attending GRCC for free thanks to the program.
“It’s an exciting time, and we’re definitely growing,” she said. “This is really the first large group of Promise Zone graduates. It’s so amazing to see these students, who have been able to utilize this promise from their community and make GRCC a great place to either start a career or move on to further education.”
This is Mishler’s third stint at GRCC, and she said what continues to pull her back is the resilient nature of the students she serves.
“We know many GRCC students face challenges, and we are determined to get them the support they need to be successful,” she said. “We want students to know that we are in this together: So many people are focused on helping them get the education they need to reach their goals.”
Raising awareness about the Promise Zone program continues to be a priority.
“People, when they find out — when we tell them what this program is all about — they think it’s too good to be true,” she said. “It’s great to be able to bring good news to people.”
Count Gillion among the GRCC graduates who plan to do great things in the future.
As he looks back on the past two years, he says his first year was tough because of COVID and online classes, but year two has been everything he hoped for.
“Whether interacting online or in person everyone has been so helpful,” he said. “They make the effort to help students with anything. They want to see you succeed.”
He points to Professor Omar Dieppa and two classes – Intro to Traffic and Patrol Procedures – as examples of what made GRCC such a great fit.
“He just makes class so fun,” Ben said. “He has a big personality, and he cracks a whole lot of jokes, but that makes the class fun, and when I have fun in class, I learn and retain the information so much better.”
Argueta is doing her part.
She works part time at Tropical Smoothie and has become a Promise Zone ambassador with her co-workers or anyone else looking into college options.
“I tell them that if they live in Grand Rapids, they have to look into the Promise Zone,” she said. “I’m a big cheerleader for the Promise Zone and for GRCC.”
And she has the tattoo to prove it.
This story was reported by Phil de Haan for GRCC.