Amazing Grace Scholars: First-Generation College Students Share Their Journeys to Diploma


Mount Mary University’s Grace Scholars Fact Sheet

  • The name was selected because “the name encourages participants to live with grace – strength, wisdom and divinely imparted ability.”
  • Provides 85 percent of tuition to incoming freshmen who have financial need and demonstrate leadership potential.
  • First generation college student is not a requirement.
  • Funded by the Burke Foundation since 2005.
  • The Burke Foundation pledged $1 million to the program this year.
  • Capacity of 120 Grace Scholars at any given time on campus
  • Previously called the Midtown program, re-named 2012 when it moved from its satellite Midtown location after students expressed an interest. “They appreciated the beauty of our 80-acre campus, and we have more services to support students here,” said Eileen Schwalbach, president of Mount Mary.

Karen Friedlen, vice president for academic and student affairs, worked with Grace Scholars for over 20 years in the classroom when she taught psychology courses.

“Over the years, I have seen many Grace Scholars grabbing on and participating in everything the university has to offer,” Friedlen said. “I’ve seen really amazing transformations. Seeing their leadership potential grow and where they will go after they leave us – that has always been so inspiring to me.”

For more information on the Burke Foundation, visit



Berenice Jurado is a first-generation college student majoring in Spanish and communication. Her parents’ options were to either go to high school or work and support their family. They chose to work.

Jurado hopes to use her leadership experience to give back to her community by providing support to parents whose children are going through the college application process.

“Because I was the first to go to college, my parents didn’t know much about the whole process — the application, the aid,” Jurado said. “Even though I knew I had their support, they weren’t able to help me much with the process. I knew I had to do it myself.”

As a senior, Jurado said the program’s impact on her life far exceeds the financial help.

“For me, the Grace Scholars program is not only about the financial help, but you also get another resource, another family here on campus with all of the cohorts, and especially with the advisers, Choya and LaCretia, they have really helped me with my journey here on campus,” Jurado said. “So not only have they helped me grow as a student, but an individual as well.”

Jurado is glad she pushed herself and applied to college.

“After almost four years of finishing up the program I’m in and then being the first in my family to graduate from a university, I’m really proud of myself for that.” –Jurado


Zarah sitting


Zahra Said is the oldest of 10 children who fled a civil war in Kenya with her parents over 11 years ago. When she first arrived to the U.S. at age 9, she could only count to 10 in English. She recalled sitting in a corner at school alone as a child, uncomfortable that she could not understand the language of her peers.

“When I started to wear my headscarf, it was even more difficult because I could see myself as an outcast,” Said said. “I had to figure out a balance between religion, my culture and the American culture. That in itself was difficult growing up.”

Said applied to Mount Mary University in 2012 and was accepted into the Grace Scholars program. Her acceptance into Mount Mary made her the first in her immediate family to go to college. She is majoring in communication.

“Mount Mary was the big-pick school for me because I have a huge family,” Said said. “They’re used to depending on me. I didn’t want to go far from them.”

After graduation, Said plans to open a women’s studio, catering to art and creativity.

“I am really proud to make it to college,” Said said. “Some of the girls in my culture, because of family pressure, get married at a young age. I’m really grateful that I’m in my second year of college. I know where I’m going and I know where my dreams are.”

“I know where I’m going and I know where my dreams are.” –Said


nataly sitting


Nataly Tolentino is the first of her siblings to not get married at age 17 and have children.

“(My sisters) would have liked to finish college,” Tolentino said. “I’m proud of proving my family members wrong because they had another perception of me not finishing. My cousins all have kids and are married. They thought I was going to be the next one. I proved them wrong.”

Some might say her opportunity to become a Grace Scholar was serendipitous.

“Mount Mary was one of my first options to apply to because of the small classes,” Tolentino said. “(The program) was full already when I applied, but then I got an email a couple weeks later saying some students did not accept the Grace Scholars program (scholarship).”

After graduation this May, Tolentino wants to put her health communication degree to work.

“I plan on being an event coordinator with preventing diseases and those organizations,” Tolentino said. “I am also a nursing assistant. After I graduate, I want to look into completing a nursing degree, but even with my communication degree, I know I can find something in the hospital setting.”

“They thought I was going to be the next one. I proved them wrong.” –Tolentino

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