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Putting family first

ASU scholarship supports children whose parents were injured or lost their lives serving in the military

West family

(From left) Christopher West and his wife, Meredith, and daughter, Carolina, established the Family First Scholarship to benefit dependents of service members killed or wounded during their service.

November 09, 2020

Chris West spent two decades building what would become a national real estate servicing business, Green River Capital, based out of Salt Lake City. 

But while he worked 24/7 on his business, he wrestled with a nagging thought.

“I’ve always felt a little guilty that I didn’t do my patriotic time,” he said. “None of my family members have ever been in the military. My father was in the reserves, but we didn’t have much of a legacy or a push for the military.”

For someone who said he feels “very, very strongly about our freedom in this country,” that omission festered. 

He supported veterans through the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides wounded soldiers with programs and services for their mental and physical health. He also directed his philanthropy to children’s causes, serving on the board of directors for the Ronald McDonald House. 

But always there was the thought that he wanted to do more.

So, when he sold his last business and “got out of the rat race,” West realized he had the time and resources to do something “a little more personal.”

West and his family established the Family First Scholarship at Arizona State University to support the dependents of U.S. service members wounded or killed in action. 

The loss of life or a service-related severe injury can be devastating to the children of military personnel, he says. While they qualify for Veterans Administration Chapter 35 benefits for survivors and dependents, those don’t cover many of their educational expenses.

“Unlike a lot of the scholarships that the Veterans Administration give out, if you fall into the category of Chapter 35 as a child or student, the amount of money that you’re allocated for your education only barely covers three years,” he said. Students are left to find financing and scholarships on their own. 

The Family First Scholarship helps fund the remaining balance of their education.

For junior Brian-Kalani Headen, that support means he can continue to pursue biomedical and neural engineering, a career path he chose in large part because of his mother’s injury.

Headen’s mother, an administrative specialist in the U.S. Army, suffered a spinal injury during her service. Headen’s academic work focuses on creating biomedical devices to help those who suffer brain or spinal cord injuries. He is seeking a patent for a synthetic biomaterial device that emergency personnel can place on a victim at the scene of an accident that will transmit vital signs and biomedical data to doctors at a hospital.

“I guess you could say the impetus for creating this device was my mom’s spine,” he said.

He says he is grateful for the Family First Scholarship, which has given him the financial freedom to pursue in-depth studies in biotechnology. “This scholarship goes directly to my studies. What has been given to me, I want to put back into the world. My whole mission statement, you could say, is to use what they gave me so I can help others.”

woman's portrait

Helena Wegner

For senior Helena Wegner, a journalism major, the scholarship allows her to pursue her growing interest in investigative journalism and long-form reporting as she navigates college on her own. 

“This scholarship has allowed me to focus on my schoolwork, which, to be honest, is something I have not had the luxury of doing,” said Wegner, whose father was injured while serving in the U.S. Air Force. “I applied for college on my own with no help — I taught my mom how to do the FAFSA with me. So, I’ve pretty much been navigating my entire college life by myself. 

“I usually work multiple jobs, usually at a restaurant and I’ve never had the time or opportunity to try 110% in classes. Receiving the scholarship gave me the opportunity to focus on my classes and network with other students.”

Wegner is taking a narrative writing class with Fernanda Santos, an award-winning former staff writer at The New York Times, and is taking a course at ASU’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, where she is learning to report on and write in-depth stories.

“I get to spend more time and know that I am actually giving it my best. And when I graduate, I get to use these stories and apply for jobs,” she said. 

According to West, if children of service members don’t get the opportunity to complete their education without accruing too much debt, it makes the rest of their life much tougher.

“So, their parents’ decision to be patriotic is affecting them. And so, I want this to be a stepping stone. I want them to know there are people out there who care about them.”

The Family First Scholarship is currently accepting applications for the 2021–2022 school year. To apply, visit the Financial Aid and Scholarship Services website.

If you would like to donate to the scholarship fund, please visit the ASU Foundation website.

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