YPSILANTI – The first group of 12 students to return to classes under Eastern Michigan University’s debt forgiveness program is now successfully heading toward graduation. Eastern’s unique program offers debt forgiveness in exchange for a commitment of community service.
The program, called the Eagle Engage Corps, welcomed its first contingent of a dozen students this past semester.
The program, which was announced this past year, requires students to complete 30 hours of community work in an EMU community program throughout the semester. Successful completion leads to a partial forgiveness of outstanding debt owed to the University.
Among the students returning to Eastern was Taylor Gamble, 25, who, is volunteering with Washtenaw Literacy in Ypsilanti and is majoring in Psychology.
During her junior year, she participated in a mentoring program at Eastern that inspired her to create her own such program, based on the things she’d learned and lessons she knew she still needed to learn.
But in 2015, Gamble found herself financially unable to complete her last year of classes for a variety of reasons. That following year, she founded a non-profit organization, “Girls That Rock,” with the goal of helping young women attain their goals through organization and self-awareness.
“The Engage Corps program has been the experience that I never could have imagined,” Gamble says now. “Having the opportunity to tell my story and get another chance has been my saving grace. My time away from school only enhanced my passion for helping the community and for higher education, (and) I am a better mentor as a result of my transition because I can properly prepare my high school seniors for what's to come.”
After graduating in December (2019), Gamble plans to earn a master’s degree in social work.
Such testimonies are gratifying to Jessica “Decky” Alexander, a professor of applied theatre and the Director of Academic Engagement Programs under Engage @ EMU, which oversees the Eagle Engage Corps, with significant collaboration from University offices including Academic Advising, Financial Aid and Student Business Services. Luke Yates serves as the program’s coordinator.
“The Eagle Engage Corps honors Eastern Michigan University’s essence and spirit of being of being a university of opportunity,” Alexander says. “Eastern is home to thousands of first-generation college students, students who come from communities or families less familiar on how to navigate the University system, particularly the navigating of federal financial aid, and thus often find themselves unable to finish the dream (of college) they started. The Eagle Engage Corps is a means by which such dreams are not deferred but realized.”
Students must be enrolled in a minimum of nine credit hours a semester for up to three consecutive semesters while engaged in the Corps. Once the three semesters of enrollment combined with 90 hours of service are completed, account balances of up to $6,000 will be eliminated. Students who complete one or two semesters will receive partial debt forgiveness.
Ronisha Simmons, 22, came to Eastern Michigan University when she was 17. Her mother is a nurse and, being an only child, she knew she’d pursue the medical field.
But, as soon as she got to Eastern, her mother moved across the country to start travel nursing. Her grades slipped during sophomore year and finances became difficult.
“It was really hard for me because I have always believed school was my only way,” Simmons says now. “I thought school was all I had, and losing that really broke me down. After re-enrolling, I am the happiest I have been in a long time. I hold school in a different way and appreciate it even more now.”
Simmons, who is majoring in biochemistry, plans go to pharmacy school and is volunteering with the Collaborative - YMCA Child Development Center in Ypsilanti.
Alexander notes that The Eagle Engage Corps combines what she sees as two of Eastern Michigan’s greatest strengths.
“It is a place/space where first-generation college students, students of color and students from low income families can come to learn and live, and a place that models dedication to community engagement and service,” she says. “The Eagle Engage Corps honors our past and our present of who we are and will continue to be – a school of opportunity, dedicated to local and global impact.”
About Eastern Michigan University
Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 18,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Health and Human Services; Technology, and its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.