Scholarships reach out to gays in college

Point Foundation is among first with grants

October 05, 2004|By Robert Kahn | Robert Kahn,NEWSDAY

John Pachankis and Frank Mataska couldn't have had more disparate paths to the same destination.

Pachankis, 24 and pursuing a clinical psychology doctorate at Stony Brook University in Long Island, N.Y., was warned by his mother throughout his Louisiana boyhood "what a horrible thing it would be" if he was gay. When he did come out, after his freshman year at Loyola University in New Orleans, his family cut him off financially, he says.

Mataska, 19 and an aspiring documentary filmmaker at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, acknowledged his homosexuality to his close friends as a high school senior in Locust Valley, while reveling in the support of his parents. Still, he endured adolescent banter in his midst about homosexuals.

This year, Pachankis and Mataska were among 27 recipients of $500,000 in scholarships from The Point Foundation, the largest source of such support for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth pursuing higher education. More than 1,000 students nationally applied for the program, which also offers mentoring, networking and internship assistance.

The foundation, which offers information at www.thepointfoundation.org, is one of more than two dozen scholarship and grant programs specifically geared toward gay and lesbian youth that have been quietly emerging over the past decade. The grants, says Vance Lancaster, the foundation's executive director, are "a new concept for an underserved population."

And this is a concept that appears to be growing. This year's scholarship allotment represented a more than threefold increase over the money his foundation gave to 12 students last year, Lancaster says.

Other organizations helping gay and lesbian students include Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, a support group, which this year offered five $2,500 grants to high school seniors as part of its national aid program. And, since 1996, the League at AT&T Foundation has distributed more than $70,000 to high school seniors who identify themselves as gay or lesbian.

Zami, a lesbian advocacy group in Atlanta, this year offered $1,000 each to 21 black gays; the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ distributes $2,000 awards to gay seminarians. And George Washington University offers $3,000 fellowships so gays can spend a semester studying politics in Washington.

"It kind of irks me when somebody asks whether there's a need for gay and lesbian scholarships, because nobody asks you if there's a need for scholarships for black students or football players," Lancaster says. The Point Foundation was formed three years ago by Nevada retail warehouse club magnate Bruce Lindstrom and his life partner, Carl Strickland. "Nobody asks them, so I don't know why it's relevant to us."

Mataska, one of the scholarship recipients, said he was surprised when he stumbled on the Point Foundation site while researching academic funding.

"I saw there were tons of scholarships for other groups that were marginalized in some way, so in a sense, this felt like a reward. It was like, `Here's an outlet for you to help change the world for the next generation,'" he says. He currently is searching for a documentary film project with a gay and lesbian theme.

Pachankis says the wave of scholarships suddenly open to his peers allows him to experience his homosexuality as "something other than a liability." "It's hard to describe the sense of isolation you feel that first semester away, when everyone else can call home to talk about classes, tough times or whatnot," said Pachankis, in his third year of doctoral study and concentrating his research on gay and lesbian issues.

"The financial support changed my life, but support from the foundation members and other scholars ... that has been even more amazing," he says.

This year's Point Foundation scholarship recipients were awarded between $4,000 and $20,000 a year, depending on need, for the time it takes to earn their degree, Lancaster said. The application process examines test scores, calls for three letters of recommendation and five essays on topics such as marginalization, leadership and community involvement. Finalists are interviewed by trustees and former winners.

Among the Point Foundation's benefactors are philanthropist Michael Huffington, who this year pledged a $100,000 matching grant if the group could create a $1 million endowment (it did), and a 63-year-old radiologist in the Midwest who gave $700,000.

The group, with ambitions to become, in Lancaster's words, "as large as the United Negro College Fund," plans to double the number of scholarships it awards for next year.

Beginning this week, MTV's college network, mtvU, rolls out a series of "Out on Campus" features profiling gay and lesbian students around the country. The network and The Point Foundation will award two $10,000 co-branded scholarships to gay and lesbian high schoolers as part of that series, which concludes on National Coming Out Day next Monday.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing Newspaper.

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