The obstacles to achieving a college degree don’t disappear once a student is accepted into college. We know in the last two decades alone, 36 million Americans of all economic classes started college, but never graduated. For some, money was the reason. For others, they were never able to obtain the necessary tools to succeed before arriving on campus.

At Give Something Back our goal is to remove both of these barriers by: 1) covering the costs for tuition, room and board for our scholars for four years, and 2) by providing mentoring and support that can prepare students for the rigors of college life. Still, and despite our best intentions, unexpected challenges arise that make the path to a degree difficult for some of our students.

An example is a former Give Back scholar named Joshua Wagner. Joshua was part of our 8th grade program in Illinois years ago and was accepted into the University of Pittsburgh. It was clear from the beginning that he did not hit the ground running.

“I struggled with the purely academic work,” Joshua told my staff. “I was not a good test taker.”

There were also some personal challenges.

Steve Cardamone, Give Back’s executive director in Lockport, IL, mentioned he often thought Josh wasn’t going to graduate. “We really had to stay on top of him,” he said.

They did. And, so did Joshua’s mentor Jonathan Voyt, a Lockport Township High School social studies and economics teacher. Jon was there for Joshua whenever he struggled personally throughout high school, college, and even to this day.

“He was a lifeline,” said Joshua. “There were times I thought college just wasn’t right for me, but I had support of my mentor and Give Back and was able to work through a lot of those struggles.”

Payload Development-5Joshua did graduate from Pitt in 2014, much to our delight, and the last we heard he was dutifully employed. But we weren’t prepared for the following email that came a few weeks ago from Joshua’s former professor — Dr. Charles E. Jones of the Department of Geology and Environmental Science — who stayed in contact with us while Joshua was at Pitt to help ensure he was on track to graduate:

I am writing now because Josh just gave half of a formal lecture to our whole department at Pitt, and I have to say that I am really impressed with what Josh has achieved since graduating just a couple of years ago. I thought I’d let you know that your scholarship money was indeed well-spent.  

In short, Josh is now working for a civil engineering firm that specializes in ensuring the ground stability of electrical power lines and other crucial infrastructure. Josh has taken what he learned at Pitt and forged ahead with the application of geographic information systems software and the photographic capabilities of drones to convince the civil engineer owners of his company to create a new cutting-edge specialization within the company. He has put together a really cool way of visualizing difficult-to-reach areas and understanding whether any of the ground is in fact slowly moving downhill. A lot of our graduates achieve a standard sort of professional success, but Josh has really distinguished himself through his initiative, drive, persistence, creativity, and hands-on intelligence. On top of this, he gave a really polished lecture!

Thus, although there were some shaky moments during his undergraduate career, in the end Josh has vindicated your faith in his abilities to succeed.

Reading Dr. Jones’ email had a major impact on me.

Then we reached out to another one of Joshua’s professors, Dr. Mark Abbott, chair of Pitt’s Geology and Environmental Science Department. Here’s what he had to say:

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching geology in a university is to see students find what they love doing, as geology is a subject that many students do not learn about in high school. Joshua Wagner is a great example of someone who’s natural curiosity for mountains and how they are formed drove him to combine his skills of working with machinery to build sampling equipment for field and laboratory research while he was an undergraduate in Geology and Environmental Science at the University of Pittsburgh.  He has carried over this interest in his job, working with advanced drones and sensors to survey the landscape and identify ideal areas for sampling using this remotely sensed data.

I’m proud of this young man, and very proud of our Give Back team and mentors who stood by Joshua’s side as he worked through challenges and ultimately found his path to college success. Receiving these updates about our Give Back alumni provides evidence of how we are succeeding in changing the life trajectory for so many of these kids, and in the importance of never giving up on them.