A Growing Foundation for Gay Students

Unique scholarship organization, started as a fledgling effort, brings on a staff and office as it plans expansion.
January 4, 2007

The Point Foundation, a small nonprofit group that started giving scholarships to gay students in 2002, has raised enough money to create a more permanent organization.

This week a new executive director took office, new fund raising positions were created, and the foundation announced plans for its first office, which is being set up in Los Angeles. More important to the foundation, it now has enough money to award 30 scholarships a year -- which covers expenses (in many cases all expenses) for gay students who are financially needy or whose families have cut them off because of their sexual orientation.

"What we've done is to create an infrastructure for the organization," said Jorge Valencia, the new executive director, who was formerly executive director of the Trevor Project, which operates a suicide prevention helpline for gay youth.

Applications for the scholarships have increased dramatically -- from 268 in 2002 to more than 1,300 last year. (Compared to the 30 scholarships now awarded each year, which cover a full degree, the fund started by awarding 8 scholarships.) Originally, the scholarships were only for those who had been cut off from financial support from their families, but Valencia said that a broader definition is now used, so that students with family support (but not much family wealth) are also eligible. Students are evaluated based on academic qualifications and also leadership potential.

The students enroll all over the country, and not just at the "usual suspect" institutions, Point Foundation officials said. Some are enrolled at religious institutions that do not treat gay students and employees equally with others. Each student is assigned a mentor -- typically a gay professional in the field the student wants to enter -- who is available for advice, and group programs bring the students together.

Valencia said that over time, the number of scholarships might increase, depending on the success of fund raising and the ability to keep the quality of the program high.

The amounts of scholarships vary, depending on the program and the student's need, but they can be quite valuable. Julie Schell, a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, expects to receive about $90,000 from the foundation by the time she finishes her program next year. The funds have covered tuition beyond the funds she received from Columbia, housing, medical insurance, books and even her subway card.

Schell came out as a lesbian while an undergraduate at the University of Nevada at Reno and her family stopped providing any financial support for her, except keeping her on insurance for a while. "It was unacceptable to them, and I lost 98 percent of my financial support and 100 percent of the emotional support," she said. Schell worked three jobs and borrowed about $20,000 to finish her undergraduate degree, but she said that she wouldn't have been able to pursue a doctoral program without the foundation's support. (The average scholarship comes out to about $12,500 a year, as most students attend programs that are either shorter or less expensive.)

Her goal is to become a professor or administrator at a college, and Schell is currently working on a dissertation based on interviews with professors at research universities who are outstanding teachers in science and mathematics courses. Schell is also serving as an informal mentor to some undergraduates who have recently received scholarships, and has worked for the Point Foundation matching students with mentors.

Her interest in a higher education career is not typical of students, but she said that when she lost her family connections in college, caring deans and professors "became my surrogate family," and she started to see the role -- educational and beyond -- that a concerned academic can play.

Where her experience isn't unusual, she said, was in her sudden need for funds as she came out. "Unfortunately, my story there is common," she said.


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