Martin Woods always knew he wanted to be an actor.
“Every time I watch a movie, I picture myself in it,” he said. “I like the dramatics. I like the romance. I like the sorrowful moments. I like the aspect of there being a whole other world that I need to experience.”
Woods graduated from Lincoln College Preparatory Academy in May. He’s nervous and excited to start classes at Southeast Missouri State University in the fall, where he’ll study theater.
As a kid, going to college seemed out of reach. His parents didn’t attend. And they could not afford to put him through school.
But as a sixth-grader, Woods found out about the Kauffman Scholars. The program, funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, provides “last dollar” college scholarships that cover tuition, fees, on-campus room and board, meal plans and book costs for up to five years.
“Honestly, I’m not ashamed to say it: If it wasn’t for Kauffman, I wouldn’t be going to college. It wouldn’t be a thought,” said Woods, who plans to get a second degree in marketing, in case the acting career doesn’t pan out.
“Where I come from, it’s not common for someone my age to go to a four-year university straight out of high school,” Woods said. “I’d get a job and work. That’s it.”
The Scholars program launched in 2003 and allotted $170 million to pay for eight classes of students. On Saturday, the program honored its last class of Kauffman Scholars, who graduated from high school this year. The program will end in 2022, after this year’s high school graduates finish college.
Saturday’s ceremony at Arrowhead Stadium celebrated 204 high school and 80 college graduates from this academic year. An additional 172 Kauffman Scholars have completed college.
Students donned graduation robes and mortar boards. Eric Wilkinson, operations manager of the Kauffman Scholars, read the list of schools this year’s high school graduates will attend and was met with emphatic applause and cheering. This year’s seniors are the biggest high school group of Kauffman Scholars to go on to college.
“This isn’t graduation. Don’t wait ’til the end to applaud. I want to hear some noise,” he said from the front of the lectern.
The Kauffman Scholars evolved from a program called Project Choice that ran from 1988 to 2001. This year, the Kauffman Foundation launched KC Scholars, a similar program that will provide high school students with college scholarships.
To be a Kauffman Scholar, students had to apply and meet certain financial criteria. They had to receive free or reduced lunch and attend a public school in Kansas City, Kan., or in the Kansas City Public Schools or a charter school on the Missouri side.
Once accepted, the scholars had their eye on the prize: going to college.
“It’s stuck in your head: ‘Who are we? Kauffman Scholars. Where are we going? To college. How are you going to get there?’” said Leischele Downs, a Kauffman Scholar who graduated from the University of Kansas in May.
Twenty-two colleges across Kansas and Missouri and one in Arkansas honor the Kauffman scholarships. The schools are a mix of private and public, two-year and four-year, small and large. Students who met certain academic criteria could petition to attend a college outside the network.
Scholars were paired with coaches who acted as mentors throughout high school, guiding students through the college application process and offering life advice.
Downs, who studied sports management at KU, remembered hours of rigorous ACT preparation provided through the program. She studied hard for her classes at Sumner Academy, churned out college applications to meet Kauffman requirements and learned how to craft a resume.
But the blessing of the program is about more than academics and the scholarship, Downs and Woods said.
“They taught us you can leave a legacy and do whatever you think you can do. I’ll always have that dream that I’m going to be big,” Downs said. “I’ve never lost that feeling.”
Ellen Cagle: 816-234-4784