Obama Scholars Program celebrates 15 years of championing accessible education


President Barack Obama speaks at Arizona State University's 2009 spring commencement.

Former President Barack Obama speaks at Arizona State University's spring 2009 commencement. ASU photo

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Arizona State University has played host to many highly regarded commencement speakers throughout the years, but none quite as prestigious as that for the class of 2009, when graduates were joined by former President of the United States Barack Obama.

“We share your drive for change,” ASU President Michael M. Crow said, addressing the crowd of graduating Sun Devils in 2009. “We've heard your speech before Congress, saw you driving us closer to the ideal, the better America, your expansion of Pell Grants, your goals to educate all of America, your drive to have a great college education — not just a college education, but a great college education to all who work hard. We hear you, we join you.”

Crow went on to say that no Arizona student should be left out of a higher education because of their family’s income. And with that, the Barack Obama Scholars Program was born, offering special financial assistance to those who are eligible. To qualify, you must be an Arizona resident, a full-time student, be eligible for a Pell Grant and demonstrate a total annual family income of $42,400 or less on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Crow believed that such a program would help “work and fight to make accessible education — the change that takes America to the next level.”

The newly elected president shared nothing but sheer gratitude for the established partnership with ASU.

“I want to thank the entire ASU community for the honor of attaching my name to a scholarship program that will help open the doors of higher education to students from every background,” Obama said. “What a wonderful gift.”

“That notion of opening doors of opportunity to everybody, that is the core mission of this school,” he added. “It's the core mission of my presidency. And I hope this program will serve as a model for universities across this country.”

The now 15-year-old program has helped make college a reality for Arizona students like Angel Gutierrez, a first-generation ASU junior studying business law at the W. P. Carey School of Business.

“I knew I wanted to go to college, but how do I pay for it? It was the biggest issue for me,” Gutierrez said. “It wasn't what college can I get into? It was how can I afford it without putting my family in massive debt?”

Encouraged by his high school counselor to pursue as many scholarship opportunities as possible, Gutierrez discovered that he was eligible for the President Barack Obama Scholars Program, giving him the opportunity to attend ASU as a first-year student — an option he would not otherwise have.

Like the program that helped jump-start his post-secondary career, Gutierrez champions access to higher education for his peers through his work as a SPARKS Ambassador with Access ASU — a program dedicated to preparing Arizona students for post-secondary success through family engagement, strategic K–12 education and community partnerships. He became involved with Access ASU after participating in an Access program — WeGrad — while in high school.

WeGrad is a 60-minute college-readiness curriculum used by families and schools to prepare children for future academic success.

“If you complete any Access ASU program, not just WeGrad, it can be any of the ones that they have, you can get a scholarship,” Gutierrez said. “You have to write an essay, make an interview video, and then you move past that stage in the interview process to see if you get it. I ended up getting it.”

In his role as a SPARKS Ambassador, Gutierrez helps high school and younger students start to consider college and shares information about important scholarship opportunities like the ones he received.

“We do a lot of telling our stories, just sharing very recent, very real student experiences,” he said. “I think that's what helped me. And now I get to do that for other kids.”

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