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Program boosting first-generation college students in WVC

Mar 13, 2018 05:09PM ● Published by Travis Barton

Students from the Opportunity Scholar’s program stop for a photo at city hall. (Kevin Conde/West Valley City Photographer)

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series highlighting the Opportunity Scholars program between West Valley City and the University of Utah.


West Valley City residents are attending college through the Opportunity Scholar’s program. And they are grateful. 

“A lot of us didn’t have many options,” an emotional Fabrynn Soonalote told the city council on Feb. 6. “I myself was homeless before this. I really do appreciate this.” 

The program was borne out of the business college at the University of Utah that assists and mentors first-generation college students. It focuses on specific needs for what those students need. The program has a 93-97 percent graduation rate. 

The idea came to West Valley City last summer when Assistant City Manager Nicole Cottle and Rich Kaufusi, program coordinator, teamed up to involve city residents. 

Cottle and the city had been looking at possible ideas for putting college campus housing for residents in the city. With one of the city’s priorities being to increase the amount of bachelor degree holders within the city, the idea struck to combine with the university’s program. 

Opportunity Scholars has seen that first-generation college students benefit from living in the same community as their family for comfort and support, but not in the same location because students often take on a significant burden of caring for their families, limiting their ability to attend class. 

With the partnership, 16 students live in the same affordable housing next to a TRAX line in West Valley City. Soonalote, a quantitative analysis of markets and organization major, said the proximity to transportation “has been great.” 

Oscar Grajeda is a junior studying information systems who found plenty of benefits in the program like allowing him to “focus just on the end goal of graduating school and not having to worry about finances.” 

It also made him an example in his Mexican family. His parents never graduated junior high. “Younger kids that are around me see that I’m pushing towards that next step for my family…that’s the biggest effect I think we’ll have on the community.” 

Cottle said it was “kind of a miraculous thing” it came together so fast and was extremely encouraged with the pilot program for the city. “I can tell you these students are awesome,” she told the city council. 

The program involves one-on-one mentoring and interning with businesses (in this case, only those within West Valley City). The city’s goal would be to encourage those students to maintain their connection to the city, living and working in West Valley. 

Financing for the program comes from state law that requires money be set aside for affordable housing when community and redevelopment areas are rejuvenated. Cottle explained they built up a pot of money from about six areas that met the requirement. 

Mayor Ron Bigelow offered his congratulations to the students for their dedication saying he would love to see them eventually work in city government either on staff or as an elected official. 

“You make a difference in our community,” Bigelow told the students in attendance. “We need good people who will stay here and build this city. This city was built by people who stayed here long-term, created their lives here, they raised their families here, they made this city what it is today and you’ll make it what it is in the future.” 

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