Eight years ago, when a group of community leaders created the Columbus Scholars, a program that invests time, talent and treasure in underprivileged youth whose high potential is at risk of being overlooked, Tim Mescon, then the president of Columbus State University, guaranteed one of the seven selected fifth-graders a $10,000 scholarship if he or she completed the program’s requirements, qualified for CSU and wanted to attend.
Lo and behold, two of those original Columbus Scholars became CSU freshmen this year, so Mescon’s successor, CSU president Chris Markwood, doubled down on the university’s commitment.
“We had two candidates so deserving,” Markwood said in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, “so we did both.”
Columbus Scholars celebrated its accelerated partnership with CSU during a holiday banquet Monday night at Fourth Street Missionary Baptist Church.
And if Markwood’s hope comes to fruition, they will celebrate even more CSU scholarships for Columbus Scholars in succeeding years.
“What we want to talk about is how we can continue to grow this commitment in the future,” Markwood said. “... There isn’t a hard and fast number yet because we still have to raise the money, but my goal is to grow it over time even further than that.”
Then he explained why.
“I believe this program really focuses on what education is all about: helping people be their best selves,” Markwood said.
Columbus Scholars, in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Chattahoochee Valley, allocates an average of $7,500 in privately raised funds for each selected student, according to a previous news release. These funds are held by the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley. Big Brothers Big Sisters strives to match each scholar with a local mentor.
The 2017 class brings to 65 the total number of children chosen to be Columbus Scholars since the project started in 2009. They are selected among applicants from throughout the Muscogee County School District.
The goal of Columbus Scholars is to make college possible for Muscogee County fifth-graders who have outstanding academic records but come from difficult family circumstances. The students attend monthly enrichment sessions to learn about a variety of topics, such as public speaking and etiquette. They also go on field trips to area museums.
“The relationships they’re building with mentors, the life experiences they’re having and learning from each other, as well as the potential for support in a university degree program, that’s what communities need to be doing,” Markwood said.
Ben Holden, executive editor of the Ledger-Enquirer from 2004-10, is the founding chairman of Columbus Scholars. He noted in an email to the L-E that a third Columbus Scholar now attending CSU received a $2,500 annual housing scholarship and all three received a $250 textbook credit and the fee for orientation.
The partnership with CSU also goes beyond financial aid. Kim McElveen, CSU’s assistant vice President for institutional assessment, has provided “hyper” counseling for the three CSU Columbus Scholars, Holden said, “from pre-enrollment, through personal adjustments to college, to academic counseling, to financial aid counseling. She has been a de facto ‘Big Sister’ to the three CSU Columbus Scholars, and Dr. Markwood wants her to continue that role with future Columbus Scholars who attend CSU.”
McElveen also helped the three CSU Columbus Scholars secure jobs, said Holden, who teaches media law at the University of Illinois but still has a home in Columbus.
The two Columbus Scholars who received the full CSU scholarships, David Crall and Niki Stout, told the Ledger-Enquirer in an interview during Monday night’s banquet they appreciate the investment Columbus Scholars and CSU made in them.
“Without their help and support, I don’t really know what I’d be doing now,” said Crall, 18, who went to Davis Elementary School, Marshall Middle School and Jordan Vocational High School. “The leadership and mentoring just made sure you stayed on the right path.”
Stout, 18, who attended Reese Road Leadership Academy, Richards Middle School and Columbus High School, said, “As a fifth-grader, I didn’t even think about college. Coming from a single-parent home, it’s kind of like not at the top of your list. But they definitely helped us through it. They definitely have given us opportunities.”
In his speech during the banquet, MCSD superintendent David Lewis said, “This is truly one of the very many things that make Columbus so very special. People see a need, and they stand in the gap and they make anything that is dreamed possible.”
Lewis urged the Columbus Scholars to “dream big” and “do well in college, then pay it forward.”
Traditional scholarships provide an award to a student who is already going to college; Columbus Scholars sets aside funds to motivate and help more students reach college. As of April 18, $608,084 in cash and stock-market appreciation has been raised and directed to the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley by the Columbus Scholars Board, according to the news release announcing the 2017 class in April.
As of this spring, when the first class of Columbus Scholars graduated high school, six of those seven students who were selected as fifth-graders out of 35 applicants completed the program’s requirements to receive between $2,000 and $3,000 per year for four years of college after the program’s initial investment of $7,500 for them, Holden said in a previous interview.
One-hundred percent of all donations received to date have gone directly into the Columbus Scholars Fund at the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley. All administrative expenses of Columbus Scholars have been borne by board members or friends of the program, who contribute to a separate administrative fund, according to the news release.
Donations can be sent and made payable to the Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley/Columbus Scholars Fund, 1340 13th Street, Columbus, GA 31901. Additional information is at ColumbuScholars.org.