Promise’ allows some residents free college

KALAMAZOO, Mich. – Last year, when she was a senior at Loy Norrix High School, Sharda Nicole Smith didn’t know if college was in the cards.

Today, she’s a freshman at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where the daily routine requires so much walking across campus that she sports athletic shoes with dress slacks. She’s not trying to make a fashion statement.

“Walking up hills ain’t no joke, man,” Smith said during a break after her psychology class while seated at a table inside Bronco Hall, a cluster of restaurants inside the university commons.

Neither is paying for college, something Smith doesn’t have to worry about thanks to the Kalamazoo Promise.

Smith, who works at a pizza parlor, said she had been thinking about attending Kalamazoo Valley Community College, a vocational school comparable to Milwaukee Area Technical College. But when the Kalamazoo Promise was announced last fall, she opted for state-run Western Michigan.

“It ain’t nothing wrong with KVCC, but I’m the first one in my family to go to a university,” said Smith, whose father makes tablecloths at an area company and whose mother is a stay-at-home mom. “I was like, ‘Why not?'”

Now she is among the first wave of students to take advantage of the promise.

Of the 502 students who graduated last spring from the public high schools in Kalamazoo, 408 were eligible for the promise, and 320 took advantage of it. Seventy percent attend Western Michigan or Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

The first report on the students’ academic performance at college is due in January. A more comprehensive performance audit is expected at the end of the spring semester.

Because the promise is for all Kalamazoo residents, not just those with a certain income or socioeconomic background, there’s no way to tell who’s attending Western Michigan with promise money and who is not.

But that doesn’t stop students from inquiring. Smith says the question usually comes up when students find out she graduated from high school in Kalamazoo. No one says anything untoward, but Smith sometimes gets the sense that her presence on campus is resented because she’s not paying for school.

“They look at you different, like, ‘Oh, she’s just here because she got a free scholarship,'” said Smith, who is exploring different career options, including the job of “animal cop” like those featured on the Animal Planet network.

“I’m like, ‘I’m just here learning like you are.'”