Leaving a Legacy: Equality Scholarship

Art, John, Ric

John Cowles, Ric Underhile and Arthur Johnson reach out to underrepresented students

Their own experiences as first-generation college students inspired three men to put financial weight behind GRCC's commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity.

John Cowles, who was then GRCC's dean of Student Success and Retention; Arthur Johnson, executive assistant to the GRCC Foundation; and Ric Underhile, associate vice president of Advancement at Aquinas College, launched the Equality Scholarship in 2011. 

"All three of us are first-generation college students who were all supported with scholarships throughout our college years," Underhile said. "None of us would have been able to afford to earn college degrees without the generosity of donors."

They've targeted their scholarship to underrepresented students — those with disabilities or who are African American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, multiracial, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. 

"We began the scholarship because of our own experiences as students and later as allies to underrepresented students," Johnson said. "We saw a need to reach out to minority students who want to attend college but lack financial support."

“We know that even a small scholarship can make a difference in the success of our students," Cowles said. "Helping a student pay for a class, parking or even their books can be all it takes to get them across the stage at graduation.”

For Underhile, Johnson and Cowles, the scholarship is an important extension to GRCC's long history of equity and diversity. 

"GRCC has been — and continues to be — a leader in supporting principles and practices of inclusion," Cowles said. "It welcomes everyone through its doors,  here in Grand Rapids and on its Lakeshore Campus. The students we support here are also deeply invested in the community and help the city thrive.

"The students whom we’ve supported are so grateful and go out of their way to thank us. Those scholars who have earned credentials — certificates and degrees — because of the Equality Scholarship have gone on to satisfying careers, to earn bachelor’s degrees, and several on to graduate school."

Those students receive not only the financial benefit from the Equality Scholarship, but the assurance that a community of donors believes in their abilities and their goals.

"The Equality Scholarship provides an excellent opportunity for other donors who are committed to serving underrepresented students," said Cowles, now Ivy Tech Community College's vice chancellor for student success. "While we began the scholarship and continue to make contributions, its sturdiness has been made possible through the many donations our friends, family and colleagues have made. We are grateful to our scholars for providing evidence of the positive impact that the Equality Scholarship can make and our friends who have joined us in bringing the scholarship to the endowment level."

Fundraiser helps Equality Scholarship reach endowment status

Scholarship creators John Cowles, Arthur Johnson and Ric Underhile shared their stories and their vision for the Equality Scholarship at a "Back-to-School Social" in August 2017.

Guests at the Heritage restaurant heard from Kathryn K. Mullins, vice president of College Advancement and executive director of the GRCC Foundation; President Bill Pink and scholarship recipient Graham Sniesak. 

Through donors' generosity, the Equality Scholarship fund, established in 2011, reached endowment status during the 2017-18 fiscal year. It will have a life-changing impact on students in perpetuity. 

Esmeralda Cruz received the scholarship in 2016: "Being a single mom drives me to be successful in school, but without your help, and your generous donations, I would not be able to afford college. This scholarship is a blessing to me."