It was Friday, May 12, when Marshall sent out its first round of letters inviting 100 students to participate in Marshall for All — an initiative announced last year by President Brad D. Smith to help students earn a bachelor’s degree debt-free. By Monday, Jennifer Jimison, project manager over Marshall for All, got her first response.
It was from Skyla Hilliard, a 17-year-old from Portsmouth, Ohio, who completed her high school education through the Ohio Virtual Academy and plans to become an anesthesiologist.
For Skyla, the Marshall for All program was exactly what she never knew she needed. As a high-achieving student who has been raised by her grandparents, she remembers being in ninth grade, looking at the price of college, and realizing that covering the cost was going to be harder than she’d ever imagined.
“Tuition was a big thing for me. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can cover this. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ I was kind of having a freak-out,” said Skyla, a first-generation college student in her family. “This thing shows up in the mail, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Lifesaver, right here.’ ”
Marshall University has launched Marshall for All this year with hopes to expand over the next 10 years, allowing Marshall students to combine scholarships, grants, work opportunities and family contributions to earn their bachelor’s degrees without needing student loans. In return, it asks students to maintain 15 credit hours per semester with satisfactory academic progress, to file a FAFSA form annually, to work a paid internship or federal work study position, to complete a financial literacy course and to participate in career readiness and/or other learning experiences.
The letter that Skyla received was the first she’d heard about the pilot program. She emailed Jimison’s office with a few questions, tears in her eyes, and a promise to give both her and President Smith a hug someday. Then she turned in her application and seized her moment.
“This was a blessing. I was unaware of it, but I needed it, and it saved my life,” she said. “I was panicking about staying on campus. The plan is to cover as much as I can by myself with my scholarships. The Marshall for All program really helps.”
Plus, she’d visited Marshall’s Huntington campus before and loved it.
“I remember walking onto Marshall’s campus and being like, ‘Wow this place is beautiful. I love it,’” Skyla said. “This was closer to home, but it’s not right there, which seems like a good fit for me. It’s not super big. It has the spirit and life of a big school, but it’s close and tightly knit. That’s the place I want to be.”
She likes that she’s close enough to get back home, if her grandparents need her, but she’s ready to take that step forward in life. She’ll start with moving into Twin Towers next month and working toward earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing, with dreams of being an anesthesiologist on the horizon. College life might be a small shock to the system after going to online school since the start of COVID-19, but she was optimistic as she attended orientation this month.
“Walking in today, I had some anxiety hit me in the face because I’ve been online and I lost that social scene,” Skyla said. “The biggest thing for me is putting myself back out there for people to see and regaining my social skills. I am a bubbly person, but my social skills have gone downhill since the start of online schooling.
“I did leadership programs online, and I want to get involved in leadership programs and things Marshall does with the community. I’ll bring what I can to the table and contribute to the Marshall family any way I can. With the Marshall for All program, it will help me get involved with the school.”
She even plans to contribute and give back after graduating and becoming an alumna. “I want to start up my own scholarship because I think it is important for high school students to get a college education and be able to put their best foot forward, especially since I’m first generation. I want them to be able to come in and not be scared or anything like that. I don’t want financials to be an issue. That’s what draws people away and panics people.”
She knows her dad is excited for her and her grandparents, John and Brenda Bevins, are so proud. Both of them started college but never finished.
“My grandparents – they’ve always pushed me to give nothing less than 100%,” Skyla said. “They don’t like bad grades, slacking. They want me to strive and thrive under pressure and get through all this major stuff. They’re my biggest support system. They’re the reason I’m here today.”
She really wants to help her grandmother, who has had some surgeries lately.
“I’m a big science person, and anything that can help people medically stands out to me,” Skyla said. “We’re going through a lot of medical stuff, and my grandma is like, ‘What does this mean?’ At this point, I can’t tell you, but give me a couple years, and I’ll let you know.”
Her grandfather works on 18-wheelers and appreciates a nice vehicle. He gave Skyla a challenge.
“He says, ‘Hopefully one day, you’ll buy me a new, shiny Corvette,’” Sklya said. “I’m working on it, I’m working on it.”
To learn more about Marshall for All, visit www.marshall.edu/marshallforall.