Students lead GCU's grant writing upsurge

GCU students Kyla Hansen (left) and Jen Gutierrez wrote a grant that landed $70,000 to assist Glendale Union High School District students.

By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau

The school district applied for grant money to pay for vital college entrance exams for its students, a majority from economically challenged families.

Glendale Union High School District was denied.

Until two Grand Canyon University students stepped in to help.

Kyla Hansen and Jen Gutierrez are Professional Writing students but had no real-world experience at grant writing before they were approached by Dr. Thomas Skeen, who has worked to expand the course offerings and real-world experience in grant writing in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“They had strong writing skills coming in and a good sense of how to write persuasively,” Skeen said.

Officials at Glendale Union were game to give GCU students the chance to rework a grant proposal previously rejected by the Tohono O’odham Nation, which distributes a portion of its gaming revenues to governments or nonprofits each year.

Over the summer, Hansen and Gutierrez read books on grant writing, conducted online research on templates and researched the needs of the school district.

What they learned was that for many of the 3,500 junior students at GUHSD who take the ACT exam, the fees and test preparation classes can be a financial burden. In the district, 62% of students qualified for free and reduced lunches, a marker of financial need. For underprivileged students, getting into college paves a way to a more prosperous future.

They met weekly with Skeen and Kim Mesquita, Administrator of Community Relations for the school district’s 10 schools and 16,800 students in Glendale.

“For me, a lot of it was about the communication. I didn’t understand how much communication is necessary to really understand what the client wants and what they are trying to convey in the grant,” Hansen said.

Skeen said the “real-world experience” helps students gain an understanding of grant writing beyond the classroom, which he hopes to offer more students as the program expands.

Dr. Thomas Skeen

GCU is launching a new undergraduate grant writing course for the spring semester, in addition to its graduate-level course, and is creating a grant writing certificate -- a credential students can add to their resumes.

“Even if students don’t go into fundraising or grant writing, if they work for a nonprofit or school or volunteer for churches or other groups they are involved with, those skills could be useful,” Skeen said.

He said grant writing is basically a proposal: “Here is the need, here is why it’s important and here’s specifically what we will do.”

A key factor, he continued, is “the ability to tell a story. You’ve got to tell the story behind the grant, who needs it and why. It needs to be told well.”

Layering in solid facts will supply the justification.

“I’ve always had my eyes on copy editing (as a career), but I do see the value now in grant writing," Hansen said. "It is its own genre of creative writing. It is telling someone’s story. The main goal is to try to persuade your readers that there is a problem you are trying to address in the community."

Gutierrez added, “Our main argument was that since students are struggling to afford lunch, that is a more basic need than taking an exam. So we want to encourage all the students to take the ACT exam, regardless of their financial situation.”

They carefully read the requirements of the grant to hit key words and subject areas and then wrote and rewrote several drafts of a cover letter proposal.

“I think the focus was leading with the idea of success – making sure students have success – and the idea that they are valued,” Hansen said.

The students’ proposal hit hard.

“After encouraging students to set their standards high and instilling a sky’s-the-limit mindset in them, GUHSD would be doing them a disservice by letting any one of them pass up a potentially life-changing opportunity simply because of a lack of room in their budget,” they wrote to the tribe.

Students who don’t take the ACT exam are a disadvantage, they continued, “as it is now a requirement at many colleges in order to even be considered for admission.”

They concluded by writing that the “long-term impact of this program will be felt for generations to come” in the community because a college-educated population is a way to a more prosperous one.

In July, the students got word: The tribe granted the district $70,000 for test fees and preparation classes.

“I was shocked when they sent the message,” Hansen said.

Though Hansen wants to work as a copy editor at magazines and Gutierrez is exploring a career in technical writing after a December graduation, they realized the power of grant writing to do good in the community.

“They were so valuable. They put into practice what they learned,” Mesquita said of the GCU students. “The funds will pay for the test of any and all students, including students who would never think of taking the test, allowing them to take it without a financial burden.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.


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