Placing dedicated educational and financial advisors in Southern Virginia local schools
Rural Virginia schools sometimes struggle to inform students about employment opportunities, continuing education paths, and financial aid options. To help fill the gap, GReat Aspirations Scholarship Program (GRASP) assists students in reaching their educational goals and securing funding to pay for post-secondary education.
Investing in the future of a datacenter community
Microsoft recognized the importance of investing in workforce development near their Boydton, Virginia datacenter and identified GRASP as a valuable partner to pave the path to education for local high schoolers. Microsoft has contributed $60,000 per year since 2018 to cover the cost of providing GRASP career counselors in four area high schools. Two of the schools are located in Mecklenburg County, and one each in Halifax and Charlotte counties. This contribution serves as a starting point in the hopes of fostering long-term collaboration. There is potential for local students advised by GRASP to take part in a Microsoft Datacenter Academy at local community colleges in the future, deepening Microsoft’s presence in the community.
Expanding local students’ opportunities and awareness of educational options
GRASP labels itself as a college-access organization that assists students (primarily high school seniors, and some juniors) and their families in obtaining funding for post-secondary education, with a focus on financially disadvantaged households. GRASP helps all students by assisting in the financial aid process and funding scholarships, by supporting students in attaining post-secondary goals at the lowest cost possible, and by giving hope that these goals are in fact attainable. One way that GRASP achieves its objectives is by placing dedicated advisors into Virginia high schools (nearly 100 high schools across the state to date).
The college application process can be daunting, particularly for first-generation college students or those in historically underserved communities. While many schools still employ guidance counselors, those workers are often stretched thin and may not have adequate resources to fully help students navigate a complex process. Microsoft Senior Workforce Development Program Manager Anthony Putorek says, “These advisors can devote the time and the resources to help these young men and women every step of the way as opposed to saying, ‘go here and do this.’ They’re able to specifically put forms into the students’ hands. It makes the process very seamless.” One GRASP alumnus backs that up, saying, “The best thing GRASP has done for me is give me the opportunity to pursue my education without the fear of being alone. My family and I struggled financially, and being able to have resources is what helped me succeed as a student.”
GRASP utilizes highly skilled and trained counselors (oftentimes retired educators) who understand how to navigate the application process for both post-secondary educational institutions and financial aid organizations. These advisors can specifically help students (and their parents or families) navigate Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) submission and identify scholarship or grant money for which the students may be eligible. In addition to identifying appropriate scholarships, GRASP retains some of its donations to provide students with scholarship money.
Advisors meet students one-on-one to develop a relationship and also to understand the student’s goals for the future, whether that’s a trade school, two-year college, or four-year university. Next, a financial funding plan is developed to identify how these goals can be achieved. Students can even opt into a summer college success program, which provides text reminders of next steps and milestones. As another GRASP participant noted, “GRASP was always available to me. It’s hard when you’re overwhelmed and need someone to talk to, and GRASP was always a phone call away.”
“What GRASP found is that, historically, for a large percentage of individuals, especially those in under-represented or disadvantaged groups, the application process becomes an actual barrier to them getting that secondary education,” explains Putorek. “So the counselors handle all of that. They will meet with the students and will meet with the parents. They spend an incredible amount of time. They do all the legwork. They help them gather data and fill out everything—whatever it is they need, these counselors know how to do it. That’s the value they bring.”
Working together toward a common goal
Microsoft has expanded its investment in the Southern Virginia area and the value of its partnerships does not go unrecognized. According to GRASP CEO Ken Barker, “GRASP couldn’t be happier with the support provided by Microsoft for expanding GRASP advising services to students in Mecklenburg, Halifax, and Charlotte counties. Microsoft’s support in this endeavor shows their deep commitment to the communities in this region of Virginia. Expanding students’ opportunities to learn is GRASP’s goal, and now even more Virginia students are able to benefit from GRASP services.” Microsoft was recently on hand to help GRASP celebrate their 35th anniversary, and the two groups hope to deepen the relationship moving forward.
“Microsoft's support in this endeavor shows their deep commitment to the communities in this region of Virginia. Expanding students' opportunities to learn is GRASP's goal, and now even more Virginia students are able to benefit from GRASP services.”—Ken Barker, GRASP CEO