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First-Gen FAU Graduate Uses Accounting to Pay it Forward

First Generation Johnson Transfer Scholar and Florida Atlantic University (FAU) graduate Christopher Gonzalez believes helping others can make a big difference in someone’s life. After experiencing it firsthand, he was inspired to do the same for others.

Gonzalez grew up in Hialeah, Florida. His parents are Cuban immigrants, and every year during tax season, he joined his mom on outings to their CPA to file taxes.

“The [CPA] was so helpful,” he says. “She spoke fluent Spanish and would talk to us and show us how bills or [anything else] would affect the tax return. It always helped, because I feel like every dollar counted.”

For his family, education was always highly regarded.

“They knew that me getting an education would be very important—like typical parents, they wanted me to be a doctor,” he laughs. “They wanted me to do good in school, and growing up, [they] made sure I was completing my homework and doing well in classes.”

Those CPA meetings, combined with Gonzalez’s affinity for math and numbers, helped him decide what he wanted to do with his life.

“It always piqued my interest, and I felt like I could do this someday to help other families,” he says.

With a goal to pursue accounting, he started his higher education career at Palm Beach State College (PBSC)—partly because he loved Palm Beach County and partly because his father lived in West Palm Beach.

“I fell in love with the area, so I moved to West Palm Beach on my own and enrolled at PBSC,” he says. 

After receiving his associates degree, he transferred to FAU in 2021 with a spot in the accounting scholars program. He was also accepted to the very first cohort of FAUs Johnson Transfer Scholars Program, which aims to improve the retention, matriculation, graduation and career readiness of first-generation transfer students.

Gonzalez says the scholarship enabled him to worry less about finances and focus on his studies.

“The events I went to also got me out of my comfort zone,” he recalls. “At PBSC I would park, go to class, and then get back to my car and leave. I started to enjoy going to these events [at FAU] and hearing other people’s stories.”

Christopher Gonzalez (front row, third from left) with other Florida Atlantic University Johnson Scholars and JSF board members, staff and consultants, during a JSF site visit in March 2023.

He was even invited to attend lunch with the Johnson Scholarship Foundation in March 2023, where he was able to share his journey with JSF staff, board members, and consultants.

In addition to easing the financial burden, Gonzalez believes the scholarship program’s mentorship offerings contributed to his success.

When he first began at FAU, he was assigned a mentor, whom he met five times per semester to ensure he was on track with his goals. He also met with the career development team to review his résumé, go over job interview questions, and make sure he was prepared for future career opportunities.

“It was good to know I had someone to reach out to if I had any questions or concerns,” Gonzalez says. “FAU offers a lot of resources, but sometimes it can feel overwhelming. Knowing there was someone specifically assigned to help was great. It felt easy to ask for help—and if [my mentor] couldnt help me, he would connect me with someone or share resources.”

Gonzalez graduated with his bachelor’s in accounting in December 2023. This August, he will begin a fellowship at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the Big Four accounting firms. While at PwC, he’ll be working toward his masters through the DAmore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University. 

When he thinks about his future, Gonzalez says he wants to help as many people as possible, especially families and single parents. 

His advice to others who want to chase their dreams? Set a goal and keep moving forward.

“Never give up or fall into the pressures of what a normal college path looks like,” he advises. “It took me six years to get my associates. If you take one step forward, its still one step closer to where you’re meant to go.”

Providence St. Mel Student Earns 36 on ACT

This article was originally published in the Johnson Scholarship Foundation’s 2023 annual report about Providence St. Mel School, a grantee partner of the foundation. Click here to read more content from the annual report.

Mario Hoover earned the nickname “Mr. 36” from achieving a perfect ACT score in 2022. He was the first student at Providence St. Mel School (PSM) to earn the accomplishment. 

Located on Chicago’s West Side, Providence St. Mel has offered preschool through high school students a high-quality education for more than four decades. JSF provides a matching grant for the school’s Paul J. Adams III Purple & Gold Scholarship Fund. The fund, named after Chicago civil rights activist, educator, and PSM founder, offers vital financial and academic support to economically disadvantaged students during their middle and high school years.

“I never imagined I would get a perfect score,” Hoover said to ABC7 Chicago—one of several interviews in which he participated. “To me, it means doing the best that I can to boost my academic career and professional career to inspire others to do the same.” 

Hoover began attending PSM in the third grade after his public elementary school closed. Christel Ward, PSM’s dean of students, recalls having him in class. 

“To me, it means doing the best that I can to boost my academic career and professional career to inspire others to do the same.”

 

“I watched Mario grow up and excel,” said Ward, who has worked at PSM for over 25 years. “Because of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, we’ve been able to help students excel and get ready for college.” 

Following that top ACT score, Hoover kept pursuing his studies. The summer before his senior year, Hoover attended a two-week program at the University of Oxford to study neuroscience. 

A PSM student works on an assignment in the classroom during a site visit from the JSF team in September 2023.

In addition to achieving a perfect ACT score and a 3.9 GPA, Hoover participated in PSM’s concert choir and on the track and debate teams. He also tutored social studies and English and volunteered at a nearby hospital and the local Boys & Girls Club. During his senior year, he competed in the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) State Series for solo and ensemble, earning a Division I rating and an IHSA All-State Honorable Mention. He also advanced to the Chicago regional finals of the August Wilson Monologue Competition, which introduces students to the 20th-century playwright and his American Century Cycle through workshops and masterclasses. 

Now, Hoover is a freshman at the University of Chicago, a top research institution, on a full scholarship. He’s majoring in neuroscience and pursuing a minor in music. His hard work and accomplishments exemplify the power of education and Providence St. Mel’s commitment to its students—including those who may not be able to afford a private school education. 

“Education changes lives,” said Ward. “It isn’t just an investment in yourself. You’re using that tool to make a difference somewhere else—individually, in your school, or in your community. Change is about not staying where you were. It’s progress.”

10 Things I Learned About Grantmaking

JSF Board Chair Malcolm Macleod has learned a great deal during his more than 30 years of working in philanthropy. He has been instrumental at the Foundation in implementing impactful grant-making strategies that help disadvantaged people groups pursue education and employment opportunities.

Here, he shares some of his lessons learned, which are discussed in more detail in his recently published book, “The Practice of Philanthropy: A Guide for Foundation Boards and Staff.”

It’s written for donors big and small—whether they are foundations or families who want to make the world a better place.

Read on to learn how effective grantmaking can have major impact on your grantee partners and your organization.

 

1. Grants are investments

Practice grantmaking like you mean it. Whether you are making grants yourself or acting through staff, grantmaking activity must be purposeful and organized. Treat your grants like the precious investments they are.

Foundation investing is different from “for profit” investing. Financial success is uncorrelated to the quality of your grantmaking or the quality of your grantee partners. Your “return” is social benefit, not profit, and your strategies will be different. 

2. Knowledge is your foundation’s vital second asset

Foundation leaders should immerse themselves in their fields of interest. It is the best way to learn. This is where your ideas will come from. Knowledge and ideas will inform your strategy and make it better. Learning is at the heart of good grantmaking practice. 

3. There is a power imbalance

When you deal with potential grantees, the most important thing for you to understand and always remember is that there is a gross inequality of bargaining power between foundation and grantee. This makes it difficult for grantees to trust foundations and inhibits honest dialogue. It can also interfere with the grantmaking process and make the foundation’s work more difficult. The power imbalance cannot be eliminated, but foundation behavior that demonstrates trust in its grantee partner should, over time, mitigate its effects.

4. Grantmaking is an iterative process

Great ideas do not usually arrive in final form. They build on each other and improve. The practice of good grantmaking often leads to better grantmaking. Knowledgeable grantmakers can play a big part in the iterative process of ideas and help propel the evolution of strategy.  

5. Foundation grantees are partners

Do not use the term “partner” in a patronizing or careless way. Realize that your grantee partners are the ones who do the work of advancing your foundation’s mission. You need them as much as they need you. You invest, they work. Once you commit to the concept of partnership there are two things that follow. Choose grantees carefully. Choose grantee partners you can trust and treat them with respect. They invariably know more about their work and the related issues than you. They are the teachers, and you are the student. 

6. Give grantees the tools. 

The best grants are those that empower people and organizations to be more independent. 

7. Embrace risk (and failure)

Foundation grants are risk capital. Allocate some or all of your grants to new organizations and ideas. Foundations are free. They are independent of the marketplace and public approval. 

New ideas and methods will require foundations to be different, to go against the grain of conventional thinking. Foundation independence permits this. Setbacks and failures are a necessary part of innovation. Have the courage to be honest with yourself and transparent with the world. This is a cultural issue for foundations. They must consciously create a culture that embraces risk and develop policies to reward bravery and innovation. Leaders must show humility and openness about their own mistakes and imperfections. This will give everyone the courage to speak up and advance new ideas. 

Risk is not the same thing as recklessness. Knowledge, experience, and strategy will inspire risk taking. Recklessness is born of ignorance and impulse. Know and practice the difference.  

8. Realize that some grantmaking is more difficult

Trying to help people solve seemingly intractable problems is a high calling for a grantmaker. Both grantmaker and grantee must feel their way along with all the self-doubt that this entails. If there were an easier way or even a clear course, it would likely have been found already. 

Grantmakers must be patient and accept small victories. There is usually no silver bullet. Slow progress is better than what preceded it (nothing). And if grantmakers won’t do it, who else can or will? Above all, be honest and transparent about your grants and results. There is much to learn from your experience.

9. Beware of unintended and unwanted consequences

Grantmakers should respect the power of money and not wave it around like a magic wand. The best insurance against unintended consequences is a good knowledge of, and an honest relationship with, your grantee partner.

10. Make freedom and independence your foundation’s greatest asset

Dedicate part of your grant budget to tackle difficult problems that others cannot or will not. The opportunities, large and small, are boundless, and they are out there waiting for you. Use your freedom to go out and find them.

 

About R. Malcolm Macleod, K.C.

Malcolm Macleod was born in Amherst, Nova Scotia in 1951. He obtained a B.A. in English (Honors) in 1975 and was awarded a Lord Beaverbrook Scholarship to study law at the University of New Brunswick.

Malcolm was admitted to the New Brunswick Bar in 1978 and to the Nova Scotia Bar in 1979. He joined the firm of Patterson, Smith, Mathews and Grant as an associate and practiced with that firm and its successors for over 25 years. During that time he served as managing partner and chair of the firm’s litigation department. He was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1997.

Malcolm joined the Johnson Scholarship Foundation as a trustee in 1993. He was elected secretary in 1995 and served in that position until 2001, when he was elected President and Chief Executive Officer. He retired from that role in April 2020 and accepted the Board’s invitation to serve as Chair of the Board of Directors.

You can read more of his insights in his newest book, which is available for purchase

Pathways to Education Canada: Strengthening Community Connections

This article was originally written by our grantee partner, Pathways to Education Canada. It is shared here with permission. 

 

After graduating from Pathways Winnipeg in 2018, Say Pa was committed to giving back to the program that supported her throughout high school. By staying connected as a Pathways tutor, she heard about an alumni event that helped her meet a whole network of Pathways Winnipeg graduates. The sense of community inspired Say Pa to become a Student Parent Support Worker (SPSW), and most recently she joined the Alumni Ambassador program to create similar moments of connection for her peers.

When Say Pa reflects on the Pathways Program’s impact on her life, the first thing that comes to mind is the community it’s brought her. In 2019, Say Pa attended an alumni event where she connected with many cohorts of Pathways Winnipeg graduates. Say Pa was already involved as a tutor at her local program location after graduation, but hearing other students’ experiences in the program reaffirmed her decision to take on an expanded role. She applied to become a Student Parent Support Worker, a dedicated staff member who helps students receive the same support that she had at Pathways.

“Pathways is my family—they’ve given so much to me that I want to give back,” Say Pa shares. “I want to give students the same feeling of belonging I received. Hopefully, one day, they’ll give back too.”

Say Pa’s dedication to helping others spans back to her childhood experience moving to Canada from Thailand. Initially a shy student, she credits the encouraging Pathways staff she had in high school for helping bring her out of her shell. Today, she’s working alongside those very same mentors to create a robust support system for other Winnipeg youth.

“I don’t want students to ever feel alone. In this community in the North End, young people are very vulnerable. I was born in a refugee camp due to the civil war in Myanmar, so I know what it feels like to have nothing,” Say Pa explains. “I just want to be that person in their life who they know will be there to listen to them, or if they need help at school, they trust that I will find a solution with them.”

With the return to in-person programming post-pandemic, Say Pa’s focused on bringing back opportunities for face-to-face connection, not just for current students—but for program alumni as well. Inspired by the event that started it all for her, Say Pa recently started volunteering as a Pathways Alumni Ambassador, joining a group of passionate young people from across the country who ensure that graduates stay connected to the Pathways community after graduation. Say Pa attended the Alumni Ambassador Orientation Weekend last fall, where she got the chance to connect with her fellow Alumni Ambassadors for the first time.

“It was so cool to connect and share my story with alumni from other locations. Even though the program is delivered differently in each community, we all have the same feeling toward Pathways.”

 

JSF supports Pathways’ National Scholarship Program, effectively increasing post-secondary participation rates among young people from low-income communities in Canada.