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United Way Program Propels Students To College, Beyond

Wendy and her mother after graduation
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Graduating from Park University would’ve been a stretch for a child of immigrants, if not for the United Way of Greater Kansas City.

That child, Wendy Medina, 25, of Kansas City, received invaluable financial assistance through United Way’s Launch program.

Started six years ago, the cost-sharing program has generated approximately $670,000 for 160 students, including several dozen that will be heading to campus this fall.

The main part of the program, which covers tuition, fees, books, and supplies, provides an 8-to-1 match between United Way and the student.

Launch is designed for students like Medina, who comes from a low-income household, is a first-generation college attendee, and has a strong work ethic. To earn money, she has done everything from caring for an elderly woman to working at a bar.

The purpose of Launch, said Julie Riddle, senior community impact manager at United Way, is to help students “invest in their own education, learning about saving and asset building for themselves, and not just for the purpose of college, but later in the life.”

Medina’s brother also participated in Launch. In fact, they graduated on the same Saturday in May — she from Park with a social work degree, he from Benedictine College with a music education degree.

Their father is from El Salvador, and their mother came to the U.S as a young teen from Mexico. They are now divorced, but they met and married in California, and Medina and her brother were raised by their mother.

The family made their way to Kansas City from Colorado when Medina was 14. They had no ties to the city, but came here because of the affordable housing.

Launch applicants must submit an essay that discusses their education and career aspirations. The program includes career coaches and business partners that help the student find the best fit for the skills and their capacities.

The newest cohort is a typically diverse group, where participants will be attending 18 different colleges or trades schools in Kansas and Missouri, with one student going to college in Phoenix.

The topics of study include: social work, automotive technology, cosmetology, culinary arts, music education, software engineering, political science, nursing and graphic design.

“It’s obviously not about the money,” Riddle said of Launch. “It’s about what the money represents — hard work, overcoming challenges and difficult situations — and seeing yourself as something more than your current circumstances and being able to imagine a future for yourself.”

—Binita Dahal is a 2017 fellow through the Alfred Friendly Press Partners program, which provides hands-on training in U.S. and international newsrooms and within the Missouri School of Journalism. She is a journalist with the BBC Nepali Service.

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