It started with the musings of a high school teacher who dreamed about creating affordable housing if she won the lottery.
Then Valerie Tolman realized that some people would already consider her rich, so first she approached her husband, Davis, with an idea.
That was 16 years ago. In April, three Hightower High School seniors learned they are joining the ranks of 48 students – all the firsts in their families to attend college – who will get a full scholarship to the school of their choice thanks to the Fort Bend County couple, the Thoreau campus of the Unitarian Universalist church, and a Jewish church visitor who wanted to make a difference.
“We were already putting our son through college and he was done. I wondered if we could keep it up; why not send someone else to college,” Tolman said.
That was in 2002 and she thought it was fun.
“So I came to Hightower and said I wanted to start a scholarship for kids who started out not doing well and are now doing better. I was really attached to those kids,” said Tolman, who was teaching journalism at the school.
That first year they received four application letters from students – which was more than she and her husband could afford.
“We still had kids at home so I went to my church and said I have four application letters and don’t know who to turn down. You look at them and tell me who I should turn down.” She said.
She attends the Thoreau Stafford campus of the Unitarian Universalist church. A Jewish man who was visiting the church heard her dilemma said he would send two students to college.
“We got a sponsor who said, I will send them through all four years. We raised enough money from the congregation to send one and we’d committed to one. Now every year the church raises money and the man still sponsors two students. It’s a lot of money,” said Tolman.
She looked at the three students seated before her in a Hightower High School classroom listening to the scholarship history, leaned forward saying, “but you all don’t have to worry about that.”
Syeda Tayyaba, 17, and Jasmin Gil, 18, will attend college studying the health fields in the fall and Angel Moran, 18, will pursue an education as an electric lineman with Texas State Technical College. Last year was the first time they offered technical college scholarships.
None will have to worry about finances.
“I have all these siblings but I’m the first to go to college. My dad had an accident and my siblings try to help my mom. They would even say, if you don’t get a scholarship, we will help. They are glad they did not have to,” said the Pakistani teen. “My dad is happy too, even though he forgets a lot.”
An accident left him with a brain injury and he has endured multiple surgeries.
“I always spent my summers with him in the hospital. I saw how the nurses took care of him. He’d have sudden seizures and I thought he was dying but the nurses knew what to do. I decided if I was a nurse, I would know something,” she said.
She will spend two years at the Houston Community College and then the University of Houston nursing program.
For Jasmin Gil, a personal tragedy made her decide to pursue physical therapy and a foreign language as her career path. Her grandmother suffered a stroke. Gil plans to attend the University of Texas at San Antonio to study physical therapy.
“This is a great opportunity. I’ve always been the first and they expect me to get something like that. I’m still paying my car and my younger sister will go to college. This is a great opportunity,” said Gil.
Both Moran and his twin brother applied for the scholarship but only Angel received the opportunity. His brother will attend a for-profit school. While Tolman could not offer both brothers a scholarship, she frowned on the idea and suggested the sibling consider a less expensive community college.
Moran said he will earn his associate degree and is guaranteed a job in six months.
“We are really proud of our student’s success,” Tolman said. “We have a 60 percent graduation rate, which we think is a pretty good record. Our students have become policemen, accountants, teachers, nurses – we even have a couple of engineers.”
Tolman, the scholarship chairman, said she is excited because one of this year’s recipients, Moran, plans to go to Texas State Technical College to learn to be an electrical lineman.
“Last year was the first time we offered scholarships for technical school,” she said. “ We think it is important that people realize that not everyone needs a four-year college degree and that for many students a technical certification is the answer to their prayers.”
“Our goal when we started this scholarship was to help lift entire families out of poverty and into the middle class,” explained Tolman. “These kids come from families and neighborhoods where hardly anyone even considers college as an option. We think that education past high school is a path to a better life. We hope sending these students to college will have a ripple effect, causing other kids in their family or in their neighborhood to see continuing in school as a possibility for them too.”
Tolman serves as a mentor or finds a mentor for the students. As the students returned to their classrooms, Tolman was still giving last-minute advice.
“If you feel that you are flunking a course, just drop it. It’s hard for your GPA to come back from a flunking grade,” she noted.
“I treat ’em just like my kids. We don’t kick you off if you fail; we give you a stern talking to. We want them to succeed like my own kids so we’re not setting them up to fail.”
“You should go to your classes feeling excited about what you are learning. College is nothing like high school,” she told the young adults.
The high school takes the responsibility of determining which students are eligible based on their finances, being the first one in their family to attend college and the letter the students write.
The Tolman’s are now retired.
“My husband says what will we do when we run out of money? But you see, everybody gets to pick how they want to spend their money. I’m not a shopper. I’m not into stuff and my husband just goes along,” said Tolman.
Next year the church moves out to Richmond so they will include the Lamar Consolidated Independent School District in the scholarship awards.
“It’s been really good and makes you feel really good,” Tolman said.