Detroiter Shannon Jajko arrived on the University of Michigan campus four years ago, the first member of her family to attend college. In a few weeks she will graduate — thanks to hard work, a supportive family, and the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program.
The Kessler Scholars Program in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts provides first-generation college students with financial, academic, social and professional support throughout their academic careers. Last week, about 100 Kessler Scholars attended an annual year-end celebration. Of those, 40 were graduating seniors.
Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, a Detroit native and resident, graduated from U-M in 2005 with a BSE in computer engineering. “Like you,” he told the students, “I attended the University of Michigan on scholarship. A scholarship prepares you and positions you for a new set of opportunities. Be open to those opportunities and possibilities.”
He advised the students to be receptive to unanticipated twists in their path, noting that “my career jumped around a bit” — software engineer at Microsoft, social media manager for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, national campaign director for MoveOn.org, director of innovation and emerging technology for the City of Detroit, a failed attempt to unseat the incumbent Detroit city clerk, founding executive director of the U-M School of Information’s Center for Social Media Responsibility, and election as Michigan’s lieutenant governor last November.
“All of you are amazing and inspiring,” Gilchrist said. “I want to challenge you to pull that potential out of somebody else. If we all do that collectively it is unbelievable what we can accomplish.”
The Kessler Scholars Program was launched in 2008 by New York Mets owner and real estate developer Fred Wilpon and his wife, Judy Kessler Wilpon, both U-M alumni. In addition to scholarships, a social network and academic support, the program includes a one-credit freshman seminar on how to navigate U-M and tap its resources, a workshop series to prepare juniors and seniors for professional careers, and stipends to assist with unanticipated costs of undergraduate study.
And it works: Kessler Scholars graduate at a higher rate than the overall student body at U-M and peer institutions. The four-year graduation rate is 82 percent and the six-year rate is 96 percent. Overall, the program has helped 132 students graduate from U-M. The 2018-19 cohort consists of 161 students including 36 first-year students.
“The financial help is very much appreciated,” said Jajko, who plans to pursue a joint master’s degree in social work and public health. “I wouldn’t be at this university without financial support from Kessler and other scholarships.”
She also credits her parents – her dad is a surveyor and her mom is a pharmaceutical technician — for her success. “They always pushed us to focus on academics,” Jajko said. “They instilled in me the value of education and their desire for me to pursue everything I wanted to achieve in a way that they weren’t able to themselves.”
Alana Burke, a freshman from Detroit, is completing her first year as a Kessler Scholar. She is grateful for the support she has received from program director Gail Gibson and assistant director Reginald Hammond, Jr.
“I appreciate being able to talk to Gail and Reginald about all the problems I experienced as a first-year. They gave me a lot of great advice and encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone,” said Burke, the daughter of a retired autoworker and a stay-at-home mom. “The Kessler Program is really focused on being sure we succeed. We always have a support system.”