'We believe in the power of education to transform lives'

Born in Sedro-Woolley at the foot of the Cascades, Western senior Jennifer Santos Morales has always found peace and sanctuary in the woods. As an Indigenous woman, she wants more people of color to feel at home in the outdoors, too.

When she came to Western, Santos Morales already knew she wanted to make outdoor recreation her career. In high school, she had done two backpacking trips with the North Cascades Institute, spending a total of 20 days in the backcountry. At Western she found encouragement and mentorship from Keith Russell, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. A professor of Health and Human Development, Russell specializes in the therapeutic connection between humans and the outdoors and the study of human-nature relationships.

“I took his human relations class, and the class was such a blessing,” Santos Morales said. “He had great advice, and in-depth knowledge about learning about different personalities, how to approach conflict with people and how to handle human relationships.”

She pauses thoughtfully and says, “I was brought into this world for a reason. I want to bring unity and connection between the land and communities of color.”

Santos Morales credits several people with her success: Russell, her cohort of fellow students in outdoor recreation, and long-time donors Bart Shilvock and Randi Sibonga.

In 2011, Shilvock and Sibonga established the Gateways Scholarship to support students who have lived experience with homelessness.

Shilvock, a 1976 Western graduate who retired from Boeing after a 36-year career, and Sibonga, a former public defender who owns an airport concessions business at Sea-Tac, are both long-time volunteers with YouthCare in Seattle, which is devoted to ending youth homelessness.

“We both believe in the power of education to transform lives. From my many years on the YouthCare Board and Randi’s volunteer service, it was clear to us that education and training are paths out of homelessness, and establishing this scholarship support was our way of helping provide opportunities for young people to travel that path at Western,” Shilvock said. For many students, scholarship support is often the difference between being able to attend Western and being left behind, he added.

“Western’s values make the university a good fit for serving people who are affected by homelessness,” said Sibonga. “We see the positive impact on their lives, and we can see how their younger siblings look up to them and see what’s possible.”

When Shilvock and Sibonga engage with scholarship recipients, it’s on the students’ terms. Some students have their own support networks and never seek additional connection or support from the donors. But others choose to share their challenges, such as working multiple jobs to support themselves or help a younger sibling or single parent back home. Others struggle with food insecurity or don’t have a home to go to during school breaks. One student faced the devastating loss of their family apartment in a fire.

In addition to the Gateways Scholarship, the network of support at WWU includes the Western Success Scholars program, which is open to students who have experience with homelessness or the foster care system.

Jennifer Santos Morales poses with Smokey Bear at a community event

Recreation senior Jennifer Santos Morales

“A big component (of the Western Success Scholars) is providing a consistent, reliable home base that students connected to the program can go for encouragement, guidance, support and community,” said Program Manager Lorrie Bortuzzo.

In addition to Bortuzzo and her warm open-door policy, the Western Success Scholars receive support from a program coordinator and peer mentors, academic workshops, community-building social events, residence hall starter kits, “warm handoff” referrals to campus services, and access to emergency funds.

It’s about providing the kind of holistic support that might be missing for students who have faced family trauma or housing insecurity, Bortuzzo said. “One way to think about it is, if you were a student and your tire blew out, who would you call?”

The Western Success Scholars program got its start thanks to donor support: It was launched about four years ago with the help of seed money from the East Seattle Foundation. Now, the program is sustained through institutional funds as well as state support from the Washington Passport to Careers program.

This past spring, Western Success Scholars hosted a graduation party for about 22 students. It was quite a celebration, Bortuzzo said, seeing students celebrate each other, knowing a little bit about what their friends had gone through to graduate.

Sibonga and Shilvock celebrate their accomplishments, too. They have been honored to be invited to graduation by many of the Gateways scholarship recipients over the years. “One of the highlights,” said Sibonga, “is to see them on graduation day.”

Shilvock agreed. “We see their smiles, meet their families, and see the pride they feel for everything they’ve accomplished. It’s such an honor to have them share their lives with us.”

Santos Morales is getting ready to graduate, too. Now in her last quarter at Western, she is working as a visitor information assistant for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest at the Verlot Public Service Center in Darrington, dedicating her days to giving visitors the kinds of transformative outdoor experiences she loves.

Lorrie Bortuzzo stands next to a window in the Viking Union

Western Success Scholars Program Manager Lorrie Bortuzzo