The University of Dayton felt like another world for Dayton Early College Academy student Dezaneé Bluthenthal even though she attended high school only steps from the heart of UD’s campus.
“It just seemed so far away,” the DECA student said. “That may sound strange considering that I went to school across the street, but it felt so unattainable because it was a private institution I didn’t think I could afford. And when you don’t see representation of people that look like you in those kinds of places, you might not think you can attain it.”
The third of four siblings raised by a single mother, Bluthenthal said her mother always encouraged her children to take their education seriously. Bluthenthal was prepared to enroll in Ohio University for nursing before her guidance counselor told her about a new program at UD. The counselor thought she’d be an excellent candidate and encouraged Bluthenthal to apply to UD despite her reservations.
The University launched the Flyer Promise Scholars program in 2017 to make a UD education more accessible for academically talented students from underserved backgrounds. Bluthenthal would become one of the first 42 students admitted through Flyer Promise and will be one of 40 students from that first Flyer Promise Scholars cohort to graduate this spring.
“I’m the first person in my entire family to go to college straight from high school, and I’m going to be the first one to graduate from college,” said Bluthenthal, who will earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “It’s a huge accomplishment.”
The Flyer Promise Scholars program provides significant financial assistance and institutional support for incoming students from partner high schools and regional programs who also qualify for the federal Pell Grant. Most of the students admitted in the program’s inaugural year came from three partner schools — DECA and Chaminade Julienne High School in Dayton, and Colegio San José, a Catholic school for boys in Puerto Rico.
Flyer Promise now includes 168 students from 11 partner schools around the United States and Puerto Rico and from Ohio college access programs. About 98% are on track to graduate in four years.
The program has also helped increase the University’s enrollment of historically underrepresented and underserved students. UD set a record in fall 2020 with almost 16% of its undergraduate student body coming from underrepresented groups. Among the incoming first-year class, 19.8% were from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Close to 21% of the first-year class is Pell Grant eligible, setting another admissions record.
Flyer Promise Scholars receive University- and donor-funded assistance equivalent to a nearly full scholarship. Students also gain a textbook scholarship and access to study abroad opportunities at no extra cost, as do all UD students. A range of academic enrichment, mentoring and leadership opportunities are also provided for the duration of their enrollment.
“I am so proud of what our Flyer Promise Scholars have accomplished,” said Donnell Wiggins, assistant vice president for strategic enrollment management and dean of admission. “They have persevered through ups and downs; changed our campus for the better by starting new organizations like our first Hispanic fraternity; served as resident advisers, peer mentors and president’s emissaries; and some have even secured job offers months before graduation. They are change agents. They’re going to influence the world in a meaningful way.”
“They are change agents. They’re going to influence the world in a meaningful way.”
Wiggins came to UD in 2016 to fill a new position in the University’s division of enrollment management targeted toward finding talented students who might not have considered UD in the past due to cost or nontraditional student status. Wiggins was hired shortly after Eric F. Spina began his first year as University president, and Spina asked Wiggins and Jason Reinoehl, vice president for strategic enrollment management, to develop the framework of what would become the Flyer Promise Scholars program.
The program would be open to students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and UD would work with identified partner schools to recruit students. Cody McMillen, an enrollment management staffer, came aboard as director of recruitment and admission for transfer and strategic partnership programs, and a campuswide steering committee of faculty and staff was assembled to provide guidance and input. Longtime UD employees Kathleen Henderson ’86 and Beverly Thompson Jenkins ’78, part of the office of student success and parent engagement, were tapped to serve as success coaches to ensure students stayed on track toward graduation.
“Bev and I, along with many other employees, remember a time when the University was really committed to educating students like the ones now in this program,” Henderson said. “We served mostly first-generation working-class families, and we kind of moved away from that. The Flyer Promise Scholars program really felt like the heart and spirit of what the University of Dayton is always striving to become.”
While University administrators and staff began laying the groundwork for Flyer Promise, Spina and University advancement began looking to donors for financial support.
They found a champion in William Tweed ’70 and his wife, Jan. Tweed had just sold his business, General Pump Co. Inc., in San Dimas, California, and felt called to make a significant contribution to UD.
“Eric Spina asked me what my dreams were for UD,” Tweed said. “I said my goal was to start paying UD and the city of Dayton back with a scholarship for inner-city kids. He said he wanted the same thing but couldn’t get a scholarship program going without a major contributor to present to the board.”
The desire was personal for Tweed, a Cleveland native whose mother had a fifth-grade education and whose father didn’t finish high school. The generosity of others — from neighborhood families to a high school counselor, fraternity brothers and students who slipped him food at Marycrest on Sundays — helped Tweed graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering.
At UD, Tweed worked multiple jobs to pay for his schooling and earned extra money by teaming up with another student, Carlos Alexander, to drive students to and from Cleveland. Alexander told Tweed that he and five other students were looking to revive a historically Black fraternity chapter that had been dormant and asked Tweed — who is white — if he would sign on to meet the minimum requirement needed for the charter.
With Tweed’s commitment, Alpha Phi Alpha was re-established at UD, and the other brothers agreed to pay his room and board in exchange for household chores. Tweed also used his plumbing and handyman skills to complete repairs on Alexander’s parents’ home, and those parents loaned Tweed $400 when a student loan failed to be applied to his student account due to a clerical error.
“That explains my empathy for these students,” said Tweed, who committed a lead gift of $1.5 million and travels several times a year from California to connect with and mentor the students. “Flyer Promise has gone beyond any expectation I ever could have imagined.”
“Flyer Promise has gone beyond any expectation I ever could have imagined.”
More than 340 members of the Flyer family have joined Tweed in supporting the Flyer Promise Scholars program, which as of Jan. 1, 2021, had received more than $6.64 million in private donations. Tweed is proud to note the current UD chapter president of Alpha Phi Alpha is a Flyer Promise Scholar, as are four more of the brothers who are now part of the largest ever UD Alpha Phi Alpha membership.
Danielle Lewis wanted to become a pharmacist and the University of Toledo was her top college choice. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Lewis secured financial aid to attend Chaminade Julienne High School, where she excelled academically and participated in multiple extracurricular activities.
“UD wasn’t on my list,” Lewis said. “I knew I couldn’t afford it.”
In early 2017, a guidance counselor told Lewis and other seniors about a new scholarship at UD that would cover nearly all their expenses. “They’re looking for students like you,” Lewis recalled the counselor saying.
Lewis decided to apply to UD. Wiggins and McMillen reached out and came to the school to interview her and others who had been identified as potential Flyer Promise Scholars.
“I remembered telling them my whole life story. I cried a lot. I’m a crier,” she said.
They returned in February 2017 and told her she’d been selected. Lewis cried again and called her mother and grandmother with the news.
“We had struggled a lot,” Lewis said. “Getting this scholarship lifted a burden off our shoulders. I no longer had to settle — I could choose.”
Lewis would later share her joy with Yasmin Espino, a classmate and close friend since kindergarten. But unlike Lewis, Espino was determined to attend UD after a sophomore class trip to campus.
“I felt like I belonged there,” Espino said. “I remember that day I went home and told my mom that I don’t care how expensive UD is, if I have to be a million dollars in debt to go to UD, that’s where I’m going.”
Espino, whose Mexican immigrant parents spoke only Spanish, used the dream of a potential UD scholarship to work harder at school, get good grades, take Advanced Placement courses and do anything she could to distinguish her application. Her guidance counselor identified Espino as a hard worker and high achiever who’d be a strong candidate for Flyer Promise.
“I teared up because I knew I actually had a real possibility of going to UD and not being a million dollars in debt,” Espino said.
And she’d tear up later when Wiggins and McMillen told her she’d gotten the award. She hugged them both, went back to class with red, puffy eyes, and celebrated with other classmates who no longer had to worry about paying for their college education.
They included Brandon Collins, a future engineering major who wanted to stay in state but worried about affording UD. The Flyer Promise offer matched a scholarship he received from the University of Cincinnati and he was now torn about where to go. Wiggins and McMillen invited Collins to campus for a personalized tour that included meetings with engineering faculty, and it convinced him to choose UD.
Another was Jacob Troutwine, a future finance major who planned to go to Ohio State before he crunched the numbers and calculated that being a Flyer Promise Scholar would allow him to graduate almost debt-free.
“UD was on my list, but I probably wouldn’t have come here without it,” Troutwine said. “This opened the door.”
When Morgan Cox was 6, she met a group of UD students who’d signed up to spend nine weeks working with the residents of Salyersville, a small Appalachian town in Eastern Kentucky, through the UD Summer Appalachia Program.
Thousands of Salyersville residents have engaged with UD students each summer since UDSAP began in 1965, but none of the local children had ever attended UD. Most who pursued higher education went to a local community college or to Morehead State University just an hour away, Cox said.
In 2013, Cox traveled to Dayton with a group of Salyersville teens for an overnight stay on campus. From that day, she decided her future was in Dayton.
“I prayed every single night that if I’m supposed to be at the University of Dayton, let me be at the University of Dayton.”
“I prayed every single night that if I’m supposed to be at the University of Dayton, let me be at the University of Dayton,” Cox said. “I had a theory that if I could just get accepted, God would find a way to make it possible to be there and it would all work out.”
She told Brother Tom Pieper, S.M. ’67, the Marianist brother who serves as UDSAP’s adviser, that she wanted to attend UD. He encouraged her to follow her dreams and said he would pray for her. In 2016, a woman whose daughter had participated in UDSAP as a UD student promised to stay in touch and vowed to help Cox get to UD.
Cox was thrilled when she was accepted but worried about finding the money to attend. Then she remembered her prayer and trusted that God wouldn’t let her get accepted to UD without providing a way for her to go.
One day, she received an email from McMillen about the Flyer Promise Scholars program. The group selected to interview for the first Flyer Promise Scholars cohort included students like Cox, who didn’t attend a partner school. She interviewed with McMillen and Wiggins by FaceTime, and not long after, she became a Flyer Promise Scholar and the first Salyersville resident who attended UDSAP camps as a child to attend UD.
“From a recruitment perspective, these are highly talented students who have offers from top public and private colleges,” McMillen said. “They’re getting similar offers from many other schools.”
All Flyer Promise Scholars are academically qualified to attend UD, but decades of higher education research and lived experiences have shown that scholarships aren’t always enough to ensure retention and graduation for first-generation and underserved students. That’s why institutional support was built into the framework of Flyer Promise, and many students have said the support was just as important as the financial aid.
All Flyer Promise Scholars arrive on campus weeks before classes start to participate in a summer experience that introduces them to life at UD — and each other.
“It felt like I was coming to campus with a really big pool and I had a lot of friends — that made that initial transition a lot easier,” said Collins, who also attended a summer STEM camp and a multi-ethnic engineering program at UD before starting classes. “From there and throughout freshman year, it was really nice to have Flyer Promise because I had that extra help, mentorship and advising, which was something I really did need.”
In addition to academic support, the program helps students overcome personal challenges. The Flyer Promise team’s assistance can range from providing campus housing for students who can’t return home for breaks to making sure they have food when dining halls are closed.
“It’s hugely important for our students to know they have a nonjudgment zone and that they can bring anything to us,” Jenkins said. “We are here to eliminate and remove barriers. Many of them have had some really extreme experiences that if they didn’t have someone to help coach them through it, they may have decided to leave UD or think that they couldn’t do this all by themselves.”
“We are here to eliminate and remove barriers.”
Bluthenthal said without that support, she probably would have transferred, as many of her DECA friends did from other colleges and universities. While at UD, her family temporarily became homeless and she lost her grandfather, a man who she considered a father figure. Her grades dropped, and Henderson called her to her office to talk.
Months later, the Flyer Promise team gave her a surprise.
“On what would have been my grandpa’s birthday, they had me come to Albert Emanuel and they had a cake,” she said. “They also gave me packs of cashews in remembrance because when I was little, I used to sneak into his room to eat his cashews. That’s when I knew — I wouldn’t get this at another university. You know, my mental health was horrible. And when they did that, I knew somebody cared about me and what I was going through.”
As the first cohort of Flyer Promise Scholars prepares for graduation, they’re amazed by the way their lives have changed after four years at UD.
“During my first year, they had us write down what we wanted our Flyer Promise legacy to be,” Collins said. “I wrote that I wanted to be a mentor and resource for as many underclass students as I could. I wanted to be there for them and help them out.”
Collins would serve as an orientation leader, teaching assistant, resident assistant and P.E.E.R.S. mentor. During his sophomore year, he secured an internship with General Electric, and he had internship offers from Cisco, Microsoft and Target for the following summer. He selected Target and completed a virtual internship in 2020 that led to a full-time software engineering position he’s already started remotely. He’ll move to Minneapolis in July.
Cox said attending UD helped her deepen her faith, and she chose to convert to Catholicism. Cox participated in UDSAP in 2019 — this time from the UD side — reuniting with old friends from her hometown. After she graduates with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies and human rights, she plans to take a gap year to participate in A Christian Ministry in the National Parks before going to graduate school or law school.
“My time at UD has emphasized the education of the whole person, which is something I’m so thankful for,” Cox said. “I really got to understand who I am and what I’m willing to stand up for. I found my footing in what I’m most passionate about, which is faith, advocacy and diversity. I think if I would have gone to school anywhere else, I would have struggled to find pieces of who I am. This was exactly where I was supposed to be.”
“My time at UD has emphasized the education of the whole person, which is something I’m so thankful for. I really got to understand who I am and what I’m willing to stand up for.”
Espino, an industrial engineering technology major, launched the UD chapter of Alpha Psi Lambda National, the first coed Latinx fraternity. She plans to join the Peace Corps and provide aid throughout Latin America after graduation.
“Flyer Promise has meant everything,” she said. “Whenever I’ve had any victory, any defeat or any failure, Flyer Promise was always the first place that I turned to. They were the people that gave me a voice or made me feel like my voice would be heard.”
Troutwine excelled in his finance classes and will start working in transaction advisory services at Plante Moran in Cincinnati after graduation. He’s also considering law school or an MBA in a few years.
“Flyer Promise allowed me to find my own path,” he said. “I’m part of the Davis Center for Portfolio Management and student government, and those take up a huge amount of time. If I was trying to work on the side to pay for college, then I wouldn’t have been able to pursue those opportunities. I wouldn’t have had as much growth as a person as I think I’ve had at UD.”
While she finishes her studies, Bluthenthal also works as a residential specialist at a mental health facility for boys, a position she secured through a UD connection. She plans to take a gap year after graduation to determine her next move — whether it’s graduate school or a career opportunity.
“For my whole life, I’ve been in survival mode: How am I going to make sure my family is OK, have clothes on my back and have food?” she said. “To think that I’m going to have a bachelor’s degree from the University of Dayton and no longer have to worry about survival — it’s crazy. It still doesn’t feel real.”
Lewis, a marketing and management information systems major, shared a similar sentiment. As a student, Lewis juggled her studies with caring for her mother, who’d suffered a stroke. Still, she managed to secure a virtual internship in retail development with Abbott Laboratories in 2020, which led to a full-time job she’ll start in May in Columbus, Ohio.
“Flyer Promise means everything to me,” Lewis said. “It has changed the course of my life and my family’s life, from breaking that cycle of poverty to being able to provide for myself and for children I want to have in the future. I can truly say Flyer Promise helped me become the person I always wanted to be.”
Photos by Brigham Fisher