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Saipan’s ‘Million Dollar Scholars’ Land at Boise State

Boise State has a unique connection to Saipan — the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands, and a United States commonwealth some 6,000 miles across the Pacific. Ralph Torres, a 2001 graduate of Boise State in political science, has served as governor of the commonwealth since 2015. And Boise State usually attracts a few students from Saipan each year.

Ocean image with detail on Northern Mariana Islands.

The connection is strengthening because of a new partnership between the university and the Million Dollar Scholars program, a nonprofit, donation-driven social network in Saipan that supports top students in a variety of ways. Fourteen students began their freshman year in Boise this fall through the program.

The commonwealth has a community college system but no four-year institutions, said Allyanna Wintermote, a Boise State enrollment counselor. The Million Dollar Scholars program offers the comradery and financial help students need to leave home to study at universities, she said. The program supports students — many first-generation college students from financially challenged homes — beginning in junior high, then throughout their college careers. Students receive mentorship, as well as money to help pay pre-college expenses like SAT prep, passport fees and plane tickets — even suitcases and winter clothes (the average temperature in Saipan in December is 84).

Million Dollar Scholar students on Decision Day
There are 44 students in the Million Dollar Scholar class of 2018. 14 of them are at Boise State.

In addition, the commonwealth is part of the Western Undergraduate Exchange, a regional reciprocity program that cuts students’ out-of-state tuition in half.

“We were enthusiastic about this partnership from the moment the Million Dollar Scholars approached us,” said Kelly Talbert, director of admissions. Together, the Scholars program and the western schools exchange create “a cohesive plan to ensure students can transition to Boise State, find community and pursue their studies,” she said.

Students is residence hallAdjusting, but not alone

Wintermote was among the small group of counselors who greeted the students from Saipan at the airport in August after their 24-hour journey to Boise. She’s worked with the students ever since, helping them settle into the city, into campus jobs and into residence hall life.

Saipan is a communal culture where many people live in large, extended families. That spirit lives on campus, said Wintermote, where the students from Saipan already are bonded and supportive of one another. There are 44 students in the Million Dollar Scholar class of 2018. Fourteen of them are at Boise State. Eleven of the 14 live in Barnes Towers Hall. A commonwealth flag they brought from Saipan hangs in their common room.

Freshman Edson Valdisimo said his new life at Boise State has been a “huge adjustment.” But having a group of fellow scholars from Saipan on campus has eased the transition. The group shares meals at Boise River Cafe. They enhance the culinary offerings, Valdisimo said, by adding their own fina’dene, a salty, spicy sauce popular in the Mariana Islands, and donne’ dinanche, a hot pepper paste.

Valdisimo, who speaks English, Tagalog and some Chamorro — one of Saipan’s indigenous languages — is majoring in communication with a minor in military science. He’s balancing his studies with early-morning Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) training. He has a work-study job at the special events office where he is a receptionist by day and a concierge by night.

When he’s not working, he likes to “jog for miles,” he said, exploring new places, watching for Treasure Valley wildlife — the animals he’s never seen before. His parents are contract workers from the Philippines who migrated to Saipan in hopes of a better future for their children. Valdisimo keeps in touch with them through video calls. Both he and his older brother DJ are Million Dollar Scholars and are the first in their family to attend college. DJ is studying at Dixie State University in Utah. Valdisimo suspects their younger sister Nina will follow in their footsteps.

Valdisimo participated in Junior ROTC throughout high school. He had planned to join the U.S. Army when he graduated, assuming college was financially out of reach for his family. The Million Dollar Scholar program changed his mind.

“After getting the scholarship, I realized that I will make more money with a college degree,” he said. He wants to put that degree to work as a military communications officer. As far as his life after college, he’ll go, he said, wherever the Army sends him.

Students from Saipan eat in dining hall together

Growing Boise State’s Global Culture

As much as the Boise State/Million Dollar Scholar partnership benefits the students from Saipan, it benefits the university, said Kelly Talbert.

“We know that students’ experience on campus is enriched by interacting with those having diverse life experiences, geographies and cultures. This partnership really presents an opportunity for us to move that shared value forward,” she said.

Ramon Silva, associate director of admissions and recruitment, helped set up the partnership. From an undergraduate global student perspective, The Million Dollar Scholar program is unique, he said, in location and in the kinds of students it reaches.

“My wife Xochitl and I were first-generation students at Boise State, and have lived the benefits of a college education. Earning a degree opened opportunities for us, and provided a strong foundation for our children and their success. It’s exciting to see the future of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands right here at Boise State,” he said.

A grassroots beginning

Gerard Van Gils, a high school teacher in Saipan, founded the Million Dollar Scholar program five years ago after teaching in a school where 100 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced lunch, one marker of poverty. He saw first-hand the barriers his students faced when pursuing advanced degrees — financial, but also the culture shock, and isolation that come with traveling so far from home.

“My students have told me they were surprised and amazed by everything they saw when visiting the continent for the first time,” said Van Gils, “female bus drivers, the existence of street addresses, the paucity of good rice, the fact that people have to spray water on their grass to keep it green. Everything came as a shock.”

Van Gils wants his program to counteract all of the barriers. “We call ourselves Million Dollar Scholars because our first group was 20 students and we set a goal to get $1 million in scholarships as a group. Also because the term Million Dollar Scholars reminds my students that higher education is still the surest path from poverty and leads to a richer, fuller life,” said Van Gils.

In 2017, he earned the title of Northern Mariana Islands State Teacher of the Year for his efforts. To date, close to 90 students have gone to college through the program. It has raised around $900,000 dollars toward its $1 million goal, said Van Gils.

“Boise State opened her arms to our scholars, granting a financial pathway that would include work and sacrifice on the part of our scholars, but that was possible. We hope to send scholars to Boise State every year as an extension of our community in a new, larger place,” said Van Gils.