Tonya poses with arms folded and a smile in front of the Skillman Foundation's colorful sign.

First-generation U-M grad turned children’s advocate: ‘You can do it’

By KIM NORTH SHINE, Michigan News

For the kids who move often and change schools, the kids from families who have yet to receive a first college degree, the ones who don’t see themselves as college material, University of Michigan alumna Tonya Allen has a message: She was like you. She did it. You can too.

Tonya poses with arms folded and a smile in front of the Skillman Foundation's colorful sign.

Tonya Allen at the Skillman.

As president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, a Detroit-based nonprofit whose goal is to building opportunities for children, Allen is a long way from a childhood of moving nine times across the city of Detroit, changing schools along the way.

She never saw herself as a U-M student until university representatives visited her high school, Cass Technical. Then, she said, she knew “the University of Michigan was one of the best schools in the country and I wanted to attend.”

But could she? She knows it’s a question asked by many children with similar circumstances to hers. Allen wants kids, whether from Cass Tech or Cass County, to know U-M is more accessible, affordable and accommodating than they might think.

As leader of the Skillman Foundation, it’s her job to better the lives of children around the state, whether it’s providing jobs training, education, exposure to the arts or leadership opportunities.

“Talent is distributed equally. Opportunity is not,” she said.

Skillman’s programs and projects seek to change that imbalance:

  • The Good Neighborhoods Initiative launched in 2006 in six Detroit neighborhoods. After 10 years of work focused on creating opportunities for children in those neighborhoods, 61,000 children were reached, crime rates decreased 40 percent, high school graduation rates increased 25 percent and youth victimization went down 47 percent. U-M’s School of Social Work provides technical assistance, working closely with the foundation, residents, neighborhood stakeholders and other partners involved in the change process.
  • Grow Detroit’s Young Talent, a first summer jobs program that’s grown from 1,000 to 8,000 jobs. “The University of Michigan has brought expertise to that model so it’s highly effective and will create the pathway and launchpad for young people.”
  • The Congress of Communities. It nurtures leadership in youths from Southwest Detroit. Alondra Alvarez, who is headed to college to study communications and work for a nonprofit, said the program “helped expose me to different opportunities I feel like I never would have had, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
  • Skillman’s $50,000 grant to We are Culture Creators strengthens the link between art and entrepreneurship, what Michael Reyes, founding member of the group, said helps members “sustain their lives as artists.”

Allen’s education at U-M put her in a position to impact thousands of children, families and communities. U-M “created a training ground,” was where she became an activist and cut her teeth on political issues, she said.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology and two master’s degrees, one in social work and one in public health, from U-M. Her work improving the lives of children has won her accolades across the state and country.

The support Allen received from U-M was the difference between success and failure for a teen unfamiliar with college life and on shaky financial ground. That support included numerous visits and tours of campus and waiving her application fee.

“That exposure was important to a first-generation student,” she said.

Today, U-M’s support includes:

  • Go Blue Guarantee, which provides four years of tuition to in-state students with family incomes up to $65,000.
  • Financial assistance based on calculated need for in-state students from families with incomes up to $180,000.
  • First Generation, a resource for students from families without college graduates.

“I was so confused when I got there…I don’t know what I would have done,” without the support, Allen said.

With it, she said, “I was not afraid. I was not worried.”

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