A photograph of Zabihullah Najafi, Sierra Ward and Jessica Cortes.

Empowering Futures: 'So that all may learn'

The $550 million Empowering Futures Gift allows Western to build on and extend areas of strength. With a holistic philosophy in mind, new programs will focus on three areas of student need: academic success, resilience and belonging. It will create a new student experience that will not only fortify proven programs but also extend support to many more students with the ultimate goal of helping more students access college and graduate.

Jessica Cortes grew up in a rural town in Van Buren County, Michigan. Her parents immigrated there to give their children a better life, working on farms to make ends meet. She remembers going into the fields where her mother spent long hours picking fruit.

 Every single day I'm at Western, there's an impact that someone makes on my life.

—Jessica Cortes, Foundation Scholar

"I did one day of work, and she said, 'This is why I don't want you to do it; this is what we live through on a daily basis, and I would not want you to. That's why you need to go to college,'" Cortes recounts.

She had the potential but lacked the financial means to fulfill that dream. Then a call from Mark Delorey, director of Western's Foundation Scholars program, gave her a way to change the trajectory of her life. The program provides a $64,000, full-tuition scholarship to students who have demonstrated resilience and outstanding academic performance in the face of adversity.

"I don't think I would have ever gone to college” without the scholarship, says Cortes, who will graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor's degree in social work.

But it's more than the money; the guidance the program offers—from mentorship to community and mental health support— helped Cortes to grow personally and academically.

Bolstered by the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), which helps students with migrant and seasonal farming backgrounds make the transition to college and offers financial assistance, career development opportunities and academic support, Cortes became a confident leader with the tools she needs to take her career goals to the next level.

Programs like Foundation Scholars, CAMP and many others at WMU have demonstrated success in helping marginalized students stay on the path to graduation and advance social mobility.

The Empowering Futures Gift—a 10-year, $550 million donation by anonymous alumni—is a transformational investment that will allow Western to build on these types of support services and create even more opportunities for Western students for generations to come.


  • A portrait of Zabi Najafi

    I've always thought that university is the best time of your life. To go from where I've been to now finally go to Western Michigan University and live on campus just can't be more amazing. It feels like I have so much support, and I'm home again.

    Zabihullah Najafi, Medallion Scholar

    Read how he's empowered to make a difference

Empowering impact

At its heart, the gift is intended to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, breaking down barriers to systemic injustice and leveling the playing field so that students from historically underrepresented populations have the opportunity to thrive.

"If you look at the things our donors are investing in, it’s programmatic support for students who may not have seen themselves in college, helping them access the University and supporting them all the way through to graduation. Because they know it's that attainment that changes an entire family's possibility," says Dr. Jennifer Bott, provost and vice president for academic affairs.

"It advances the narrative, especially living in Kalamazoo where we've spent so much time talking about access to college and the Kalamazoo Promise, and I think that's incredible," adds Dr. Ed Martini, associate provost of WMUx and dean of Merze Tate College. "But if we don't talk about the completion agenda on that—not just the first generation to attend but the first generation to graduate from college and the ripple effect that can have within a family, within a neighborhood, within a community—we’re missing a key piece.”

The donors designated $200 million of the gift for WMU, $50 million for Bronco Athletics and $300 million for the WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. It will fund scholarships, advance medical education and research, support faculty expertise, increase athletic competitiveness and make possible numerous student-centered initiatives.


"This gift will allow us to live our mission: 'So that all may learn.' And it helps us in that components of the gift will expose students to their purpose," says Bott. "Our purpose is defined not just by what we believe but by the experiences that construct us. This gift allows us to create experiences for all of our students, not just for the students who can afford it."


Bott and other University administrators are examining existing programs, reviewing data, and planning financial and programmatic support that will invest the Empowering Futures funds in a way that has the greatest impact on ensuring students reach graduation. Implementation, which will begin in fall 2022, will focus on four areas:

  • Educational access and retention: A significant expansion of need-based financial assistance with tuition, room and board, and degreecompletion support.

  • Purpose and passion: Paid experiential learning for students who rely on jobs to fund their education, as well as new support staff to guide students in their pursuit of a meaningful career. • Well-being: New professional and technical support to improve mental health and help students develop healthy lifestyles.

  • Transformational excellence: Hiring new faculty to enhance the diversity of the faculty and advance interdisciplinary education and research.

With these key areas in mind, the University will build on and extend areas of strength, not replace or duplicate them.

"We have a lot of really strong programs, and they all tend to have a couple of key features in common. One of those key features is dedicated support—not just on the academic issues, not just the class scheduling, but the whole student," Bott says.


  • A portrait of Sierra Ward.

    Western won me over because there are so many different programs to choose from. I've chosen public health as my major, but I'm interested in so many things and I don't want to get trapped if I find something else that interests me. Western has a lot of other majors.

    Sierra Ward, fourth-generation Bronco

    See how she's driven by service and social justice


With a holistic philosophy in mind, University leaders have prioritized three areas of need which students must have fulfilled to succeed in college: academic success, resilience and belonging. The team knows that each student is unique and arrives at college with their own strengths and needs. When needs are fulfilled, students tend to succeed and graduate. So, the team is building programming that can offer tailored support when, where and how it is needed.

"It's a more holistic approach to student success," adds Martini. "Just as students can't thrive academically if they're not sure how they’re going to pay their tuition bill or how they're going to pay their housing bill that month, they also can't thrive if they're not in a good headspace to succeed or are struggling with anxiety we know many students have been feeling—even before the pandemic."

Programs like the Foundation Scholars, Seita Scholars and TRiO fulfill many but not all student needs. The new student experience created by the gift will not only fill gaps in existing programs but also extend academic, resilience and belonging support to many more students. Ultimately, the goal of the gift is to provide the support necessary to not only advance Western’s access mission but also to help more students earn diplomas.

Empowering future leaders

"Every single day I'm at Western, there's an impact that someone makes on my life," Cortes says. "I don't know what life would be without the Foundation Scholarship. I don't know if I would be the same person that I am today or the leader I am today."

And through the guidance and goading of WMU CAMP staff, Cortes realized she is in a position to make a powerful difference to those around her.

"The guidance let me know I have a voice and I have the ability to do what I set my mind to do. They pushed me," says Cortes, who wants to be a school social worker. "There are struggles my parents and a lot of people coming from low-income communities went through. I just want to be able to help out my community by educating myself, coming back to my community and helping out."

Da'Jon Fisher wants to give back as well. He'll graduate in May 2022 and has plans to be a nursing home administrator. He'd also like to pursue a graduate degree in social work. These are goals that seemed far out of reach when he first started his higher education journey as a first-generation college student who didn’t know how to navigate the landscape.

  • A portrait of Tennie Jackson.

    I’m proud of what Western has done and is doing to not only help students who aspire to earn a degree achieve those aspirations but also provide a wonderful support system once on campus.

    Tennie Jackson, 2020 graduate and Seita Scholar

"I needed somebody to help guide me through that," says Fisher, who is from Detroit.

Nathifa Sligh, director of the TRiO Student Success Program, helped him apply for scholarships and find ways to cut costs. TRiO is a federally funded program built to help first-generation, income-eligible students with academic need achieve their personal and educational goals.

"TRiO was very important because it got me involved. TRiO helped me with my leadership skills. It helped me figure out my passions, my strengths and what my weaknesses are so I could work on them. It's just important allaround for (first-generation students) to have," Fisher says.

Sligh and Candace Faistenhammer Bracey, TRiO program service specialist, were there for him to lean on and “grow as a leader, as a student, as an adult,” which he says was important to his college career.

Fisher’s and Cortes’ stories are testaments to Western's commitment to helping students reach their full potential on a path to a life well-lived. And with the help of the Empowering Futures Gift, the University will be able to broaden opportunities for even more Broncos, Bott says.

"Through the hard work of our faculty and staff, we produce students who can achieve not just financially—which is obviously really important—but they also become really powerful citizens and vocal leaders in business and the community." ■