Joan Casanova Gonzalez is the executive director of the Development Office for Student Success at the FIU Foundation. In her role, she oversees development for the First Generation Scholarship Program, which provides support to undergraduate students at FIU who are among the first generation in their families to earn a college degree. An alumna of FIU and first-generation college graduate herself, Joan has worked for the university for more than 25 years.
Support for first-generation students’ endeavors at FIU has increased drastically over the past decade – the number of endowments for first-generation scholarships at FIU grew from just one in FY09-10 to 43 in FY19-20. Last fiscal year, Joan and her team raised $5.6 million for first-generation scholarships against a goal of $3.5 million. Additionally, through a grant program from the State of Florida, dollars raised for these scholarships are matched 2-to-1, tripling the impact a donor’s gift has at FIU.
In light of this month’s national First-Generation College Celebration, Joan shares some of what makes this program a successful facet of the FIU Foundation’s strategy to increase scholarships and student support:
When you discover the “why?” in what you do, it ignites the passion within you, and you thrive. I’m living proof of that. I fundraise for the First Generation Scholarship Program at FIU. You know what makes this job a passion? The students. Their determination to break the mold and their drive to succeed inspire me.
Many people tell me, “I could never ask people for money!” But I don’t believe I do that. Over my career, I’ve learned that three things make up the core of what I do every day:
1. I story-tell. I share genuine stories of all the incredible students I have met throughout my journey, and I stress the common denominator among them: the generous and empathetic donors who helped students achieve something that can never be taken away from them – an education.
These are stories of challenging times, perseverance and hard work to achieve goals. These are not traditional students; these are students who are going against all odds to attain something for themselves and their families that has yet to be reached – being the first to cross the finish line and earn a bachelor’s degree. That really resonates with our community.
When students see this, they start to realize how inspiring their story is and begin using their own voices to tell their stories. It’s exhilarating. It’s magical. It’s invigorating.
2. I learn the data. I love data because it tells the hard truth that all men and women are not created equal. Some need just a little (or a lot) of help along the way. Education is a catalyst to achieve and an equalizer – it grants access to opportunity and excellence. Data helps show that. I analyze student data and financial aid information. I see where the need is. I outline the facts to those who are willing to help and show them how the impact of a scholarship can lead to something positive.
3. I collaborate. I seek potential partners – individuals, corporations and foundations, as well as the colleges and units within FIU – who want to help students. I educate everyone on the incredible 2-to-1 matching grant that the State of Florida has blessed us with, and how it increases the impact a gift of any size can have on first-generation students. When I show people data and ask if they want to change the outcome for these students in need, they are eager to help.
I take so much pride in this work – I revel at every graduation, when I see the students we’ve helped cross the stage. I hear so many “thank you’s,” which I don’t truly deserve. I see the looks of amazement on their faces when they learn that donors, or, as students often call them, “strangers,” are willing to help them.
I’ve come to realize that students never forget this experience. They will always look back on their time at FIU and know someone believed enough in them to invest in their future at a pivotal time, which led them to achieve something epic in their lives.
Students are grateful, and in turn, they pay it forward. That makes it all worth it.