This article first appeared on July 7, 2015, on the blog of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, a leading Austin-based foundation focused on transforming the lives of children living in urban poverty.
Since the Dell Scholars program began in 2004, we’ve told the stories of many high school seniors just starting their college journey with us. But what happens on that journey? What challenges do they face? What changes for students once they have a diploma in hand? And what changes for their families and communities, too?
Getting a college degree isn’t the end of the story for our students. It’s just the beginning. Our alumni stories show the ripple effects that can emanate when just one person’s path changes. For many students, a college degree breaks a generational cycle of poverty and myriad related challenges. It’s a game changer for students, families and society at large alike. Here, you’ll hear one of our 1,400 Dell Scholar graduates talk about her journey and where she is now. And, perhaps even more importantly, where she’s headed. (Read the introduction to the series here.)
Donalyn Allen was four years old when her mother died. With Donalyn’s father an intermittent presence (her parents had separated by the time she was born), the preschooler’s maternal grandmother brought Donalyn from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to her La Porte, Texas, home to raise her.
Donalyn’s grandmother became her lifeline, a parental figure but also — as Donalyn got older — a close friend. In school, Donalyn struggled at times with reading and a speech impediment. She also struggled to make sense of her mother’s sudden death, a struggle that continued through college.
“Most people came from a two-parent home,” Donalyn says of her small-town hometown some 30 miles from Houston. “I’d go to school events with my grandma and my friends would ask: ‘Where’s your mom? Where’s your dad?’ Trying to explain that as a child, it’s quite hard.”
Finances got rockier after her grandmother suffered from health problems and eventually had to retire. By the time Donalyn reached high school, she knew she needed external support. Thankfully, a teacher close to Donalyn from the AVID college-readiness program helped involve a counselor and Donalyn’s home life steadily improved. “My AVID teacher became like a second mom to me,” Donalyn says. This same teacher encouraged Donalyn to pursue college.
“I’d wanted to go to college ever since I was really young. But my AVID teacher was the one who really put the bug in my ear and constantly encouraged me. She’d say you need to get out of this small town,” Donalyn says. “My grandma didn’t know much about college except that it was really expensive.”
Donalyn started scholarship hunting in 9th grade without much luck. By senior year, she felt discouraged and thought she might need to settle for the local community college. Then she learned that she had been accepted as a Dell Scholar.
Donalyn’s grandmother and a family friend moved her into her dorm at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, some three hours from her hometown. In 2012, Donalyn became the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree, in speech pathology.
But she had a steep learning curve on her path to getting that degree, grappling with everything from how to study for a test to how to juggle finances. “Many of my college peers had parents that held a degree (or two), edited their papers, informed them about internships that could advance their careers after college, etc. Of course I could call my grandmother and she’d be there for me. But having never been to college, all she was able to offer me was prayer, love, encouragement, and moral support,” Donalyn says.
Though she fell in love with her field, college classes weren’t the only things that proved transformative for Donalyn. As a senior she worked in the school of education dean’s office, learning invaluable networking and professional skills and nurturing her self-confidence.
“I’d never been around so many people with multiple degrees. It felt intimidating because that was not the background I was used to – educationally, socially, or economically,” Donalyn says. “But it gave me a glimpse into the world I’d step into after graduation. And it inspired me to develop my own leadership skills, making me think maybe I could be a Dr. Allen someday.”
In fact, Donalyn went on to earn a master’s degree in speech pathology. She was so transfigured by her time on campus that, today, she talks about her high school self and her college self almost as if they were two different people. “The persistence I had about going to graduate school would have been unimaginable to my high school self,” she says.
The 24-year-old will begin work as a speech therapist late this summer in a school district near La Porte. She wanted to give back to the community where she was raised and help her grandmother. Donalyn and a fellow AVID friend have launched a fledgling mentor program, promoting college and offering small scholarships to current La Porte AVID students and at the same afterschool program Donalyn once attended and worked for in high school. “I want to change the lives of children that were once in my shoes,” Donalyn says.
In the near term, Donalyn wants to join a traveling speech therapy agency (which deploys speech therapists on temporary assignments) to see more of the country. Eventually, she’d like her own private practice.
Donalyn and her other first-generation college graduate friends have talked a lot about how life will be different for their own children. “Our kids will have no choice, they will go to college,” Donalyn laughs. “And, thankfully, they will grow up with the knowledge of what college is all about.”
Learn more about the MSDF Dell Scholars Program.
About the author: Oscar Sweeten-Lopez is the Dell Scholars Program leader, overseeing MSDF’s comprehensive college persistence services to improve the four-year college graduation rates of high-risk, low-income students.