Pictured Vance Lancaster
Despite the hard work they put in to achieve success, academic standouts often have difficulty piecing together enough financial aid to get through college or graduate school. Add being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered to the mix, and the journey to getting that diploma can become that much more arduous.
The above reason underscores the necessity of organizations like The Point Foundation, the first and only national LGBT scholarship institution in the country that focuses only on providing assistance to students who are ostracized because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
( The Web site of the Chicago-based establishment is www.thepointfoundation.org . )
Windy City Times recently spoke with Vance Lancaster, executive director of The Point Foundation. Named by OUT magazine as one of the top 100 success stories of 2004, Lancaster proved himself to be a dynamic and tireless advocate of education and equality.
Windy City Times: Tell me about the OUT magazine honor.
Vance Lancaster: It was great to have the work of the foundation recognized. The foundation has grown amazingly over the past year. We went from a $300,000-a-year organization to one with a budget of $1.5 million. Being recognized is great because other people can find out about us. The No. 1 priority is to bring in support so we can help more students. We had more than 1,000 applicants but we were only able to give 25 scholarships last year; obviously, there's a tremendous need out there. ... The other thing I was recognized for was establishing a one-million-dollar endowment. [ California philanthropist ] Michael Huffington promised to give $100,000 if we could raise $900,000; we were able to come up with the money in 90 days, which is pretty remarkable. Michael has given us another challenge and we now need to raise $850,000 by June 30. ... A lot of young people get lost in the transition from high school to college and the transition from college to graduate school or careers. We're the only organization that provides comprehensive scholarships and mentoring to these students; unfortunately, we can't help enough of them at this point.
WCT: Now your own background is pretty distinguished.
VL: I came to Chicago at age 18 to attend the University of Chicago; I chose it because of its reputation for academic excellence. Attending the university was a tremendous and transformative experience—it led to my belief that providing education to these young people is extremely important.
I also went to that university's Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy to obtain my master's degree. I then worked at the Federal Reserve Bank for a number of years; I became the youngest person ever named an officer at the bank. While I worked, I went to Northwestern University and got an MBA with a concentration in marketing.
After I got my MBA, I worked in the private sector as a director at Diageo, a London-based company. I then moved to the Cisneros Television Group in Miami, where I was vice president of marketing. From there I went to the Gill Foundation as director of philanthropy and recognized the importance of giving back to the community.
This year, I'm supporting the Point Foundation myself. I'm donating $25,000 because I am truly committed to the work of the foundation. I work for a non-profit organization but I think that it's important to give a big percentage of my salary back to the community, especially to young people who've had the courage to come out despite the marginalization they face. These students have achieved amazing things even though in many instances they've been kicked out of their homes. One student from Florida lived on the streets from ages 13 to 17 but he got these amazing grades and assumed all of these leadership roles; now he's at the University of California. Another student was not only kicked out of his house by his dad after he discovered his son was gay but his father also called all of his relatives, asking them not to take his son in. Then, there's the story that was featured in [ the Dec. 8 issue of ] The New York Times. [ The article tells the story of Ryan Kim, a student who attended a high school near Denver. Although things fell apart with his family after he came out, he eventually was accepted to Princeton University, where he is still a student. The Point Foundation provides part of Kim's financial aid. ] There are literally tens of thousands of stories like these.
WCT: I'm impressed that you've done all this because I'm a huge proponent of education myself.
VL: That's why I'm here at the foundation—what we're doing is unique and important. We don't just give our scholars a check and say 'good luck.' Each person has a mentor who makes sure that [ he or she is ] successful; the mentor serves many roles and in some cases serves as a surrogate family for these amazing young people that have been abandoned by their friends and families because they are honest about who they are—because they are gay. The mentor is someone that they can call if they have a good day or a bad day. In many cases, the mentor will accompany the scholar to campus on the first day of school and invite them into their homes during what would otherwise be very lonely holidays. In the end, I think the families that abandoned these great young people are the losers. They are missing out.
I actually joined the Point Foundation as a board member. I was on the board of trustees and then they named me to the board of directors; I became very passionate and brought in a lot of money. Then, they offered me the executive director position; I assumed it in July. This is the first time that I've really felt passionate about what I'm doing; I've worked harder at this job than any other. ... I'm the only full-time employee and am supported two part-time staff members. I manage the organization and do most of the administrative duties. A lot of my work is involved in marketing and public relations ... . Also, a lot of my time is spent meeting with potential donors and supporters of the organization; we can't do anything without them.
WCT: Let's talk about the scholarships.
VL: This is our third year. The first year we awarded eight scholarships, last year we awarded 12, and this year we're supporting 25 scholars. Next year, we hope to increase that number. Also, our payouts are substantial; our average amount is $14,000 and they range from $4,000 to $30,000. ... When we give out the scholarships, they're for the full term of the degree program—although it's pretty rigorous. They have to maintain a 3.5 grade point average. We evaluate students on a number of criteria: academic success; leadership potential and involvement in extracurricular activities; involvement in the gay and lesbian community; and marginalization. The contract of excellence is a statement by the students to agree to maintain the high standards they've already achieved. ... [ In 2005 ] I anticipate that we'll more than double last year's number of 1,000 applicants. ... High school students are being beaten up and humiliated just because they're gay. It can be so bad ... that young gay people feel that they have to drop out of school. We feel that we offer hope to these students—which is just as important as offering money.
WCT: If someone wants to contribute, what should he or she do?
VL: I would encourage people to visit our Web site to find complete information about our program; people can donate online using our secure server. People can also call our number, which is ( 866 ) 33-POINT. [ Deductions are tax-deductible and 100 percent of the donations directly support the scholars. The board of trustees and anonymous donors cover the administrative costs. ]
WCT: Any concluding thoughts?
VL: Being based in Chicago, we really feel at home in the heartland and we expect to expand support in the city.
Actress Judith Light is the most recent addition to the Board of Trustees of The Point Foundation. TV producer Herb Hamsher, business leader David H. Steward and communications attorney Peter J. Epstein also joined the Board during late 2004. www.ThePointFoundation.org .