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Gary Sinise Foundation Blog

Military and veteran kids achieve their college and career dreams

April 19th, 2021

Mikayla Kaczmar’s freshman year has been exactly what she wanted: hands-on.

As one of 40 students awarded a full-ride scholarship to Virginia Tech’s Calhoun Discovery Program in 2020, she and her classmates developed a new wind turbine blade that could withstand stronger wind speeds. They worked with GE Appliances on solving inefficiencies in its warehouse management system. And most recently, her class partnered with Boeing to develop a smart sensor that alerts a firefighter to the onset of heatstroke.

“I love being able to get right to it,” said Mikayla, who is majoring in industrial design. She is one of the many success stories to come out of Gratitude Initiative, a nonprofit providing education and career support and college scholarships to children of service members, veterans, and surviving spouses.

“We’re not focused on getting a kid into school, we’re really focused on helping a kid get into the right school for them, studying for that career that was literally made for them so that they can then graduate on time in four years, saving time and money,” said Lee Sechrist, who co-founded the organization in 2013.

Finding the right school and career track for a student starts with Gratitude’s College Success Academy.

What typically runs upwards of thousands of dollars for college admissions counseling, the Texas-based organization covers at no cost to families. From individual feedback on personal essays and the Common App, SAT and ACT test preparation, to a step-by-step guide to completing financial aid and scholarship applications, they provide with a white glove.

“All the resources that they had were very helpful in terms of outlining what I should do and when,” said Kyli Murphy, a high school senior who enrolled in the CSA after moving from North Carolina to Florida the summer of her junior year.

Working with Brenda Watkins from Gratitude Initiative gave Kyli a shot of confidence in applying to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University, said her father, Tim, an Army combat veteran. The personal touch and holistic approach advisors like Watkins took with Kyli made a lasting impression.

“It wasn’t just a computer system, it wasn’t just emails,” he said. “It was, ‘I’m going to talk to you and I’m going to care about you today.’ That felt really good to see.”

Kyli Murphy, second from left, participated in Gratitude Initiative's College Success Academy. She will be a freshman at Johns Hopkins in the fall.

The CSA started in 2015 and is delivered entirely online to students in grades eight to high school seniors. A team of advisors communicates with families through email, live video, and phone. Sechrist estimates 1,800 students spanning 45 states and three continents are currently in the program.

“We start with a career in mind as the basis. It helps them stay on track, but it makes their high school coursework more tangible and real towards what they’re working,” Sechrist said. Not having a definable course of study and career in mind, he explained, can mean the difference in not graduating on time, and potentially accumulating student loan debt.

In 2018 and 2019, 56% of bachelor’s degree recipients from public and private colleges and universities incurred on average $28,800 in debt, according to the Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020 published by the College Board.

Navigating the labyrinth of financial aid forms, merit-based scholarships, financial aid award letters to calculating the total costs of postsecondary education falls on CSAs advisors. That comes as a relief for families overwhelmed by the time-intensive investment and volume of resources available through the Department of Education and college admissions marketplace.

“I work full time, my husband works full time, and trying to help your children apply to colleges is a full-time job,” Julie Kaczmar said. She and her husband, Marin, a chief warrant officer in the Coast Guard, enrolled their youngest son, Keegan, in the program three years ago as an eighth-grader.

At the end of her junior year of high school, Mikayla Kaczmar worked with Gratitude Initiative's advisors to identify her career pathway in Industrial design, not engineering as she originally thought.

In 2020, the Gary Sinise Foundation awarded Gratitude Initiative a grant sponsoring 50 children to go through the CSA. The grant was doubled this year to cover 100 children drawn from the foundation’s R.I.S.E. program, Snowball Express, active-duty families, and veterans.

Not every student who goes through the CSA ends up at a four-year university. Based on their interests and other assessments, an advisor may recommend a student pursue a trade or technical school. Earning a degree before entering the workforce is encouraged.

Sechrist said the return on investment for families goes beyond saving thousands upon thousands of dollars in college tuition costs.

“In this competitive environment, we give our military and veteran kids the competitive advantage they need to excel and successfully achieve their college and career dreams.”

Last year, Johns Hopkins admitted just seven percent of applicants from a pool of nearly 30,000. The university reported receiving 33,236 applications for the class of 2025 from high school seniors across 49 states and 89 countries. Among the 2,476 students admitted this fall was Kyli Murphy. “I was really surprised. I did not expect to get accepted in the first go around,” she said.

“I feel that all my experiences and all that I’ve gone through, and that effort I put into it was worth it.”

In May, when Mikayla Kaczmar finishes her freshman year at Virginia Tech, she will start an internship with A.L.P. Lighting working on its LexaLit brand. Due to COVID-19 concerns, she’ll participate from home over Zoom with her colleagues in Michigan. Still, it’s an exciting time for her, a step closer to pursuing an end goal in industrial design that began with a methodical approach and collaborative input between her and Gratitude Initiative.

Written by Brandon Black