Editor’s Note: The following is the text of the testimony the author submitted to the CNMI Lottery Commission dated July 30, 2018.
I started the Million Dollar Scholars program to inspire my Kagman High School students to break out of persistent cycles of poverty through higher education. Obstacles as simple as a passport application or as difficult as off-island relocation to attend college were holding my students back. When a single student exits the poverty cycle, the whole family is helped. A family elevates the village, the village elevates an island, and soon our whole Commonwealth is improved by the education of a single scholar; by this August, we will have assisted more than 90 scholars to attend college on scholarships in the last three years.
For the last years, I have done this work with the support of my school and friends, but with no major funding, no corporate support, and without an organized professional network. All of this has changed with a major donation by Imperial Pacific International.
The Million Dollar Scholars has partnered with a vertically aligned professional organization, the Marianas Young Professionals, to start preparing internships, jobs, and professional growth for our scholars who will soon return to their home-islands with diplomas and skills that are badly needed. I am the newly installed executive director of this CNMI non-profit organization. This progress has been possible because of IPI.
With this major investment from IPI, we have been able to hire college preparation teachers, from a rich on-island talent pool, to teach college entrance exam preparation to public high school students on Saipan (tripling our previous capacity). We were also able to bring meaningful technology education to the students of the CNMI, offering summer technology camps to more than 80 students and teachers. Our MYPros college preparation interns helped outgoing scholars apply for scholarships, book flights, open bank accounts, and do all things needed to ensure that the great leap to higher education is successful for our young people. Our educational support, community non-profit organization, is strengthening and growing. This results in considerable benefit of our scholars, their families, and our community. This is how we begin to serve.
Education alone doesn’t break generational cycles of poverty. For that we need economy.
In the near future we hope to create an incubator space for young professionals to start businesses, thus diversifying and supporting the economy of the CNMI. We have started placing college scholars into summer internships with local companies, tying our scholars back to the islands professionally to entice our young professionals back to their home islands where they are needed. Those internships will turn into local job placements after college. This effort combats retention difficulties and creates new employment. Rather than losing our young people, who possess the most potential to elevate their communities, we are bringing them home and getting them to work. We are creating “brain gain.”
This work has led to my being awarded as the 2017 State Teacher of the Year, the 2017 PREL Pacific Educator of the Year, and various local awards and recognitions as well. The success of this work has enabled me to advocate for our students, workers, and businesses in the CNMI, from the halls of Kagman High to the halls of the U.S. Congress, and even to the Oval Office and the desk of President Trump. The Million Dollar Scholars and MYPros model is based on researched “best practices” for student success and poverty elimination. And, best of all, we are just beginning! Only now, after many years of solitary struggle, does this work have growth potential, thanks to the major financial support of Imperial Pacific International.
Over the next months and years, we will continue to train and teach our students with the same philosophy that got us started: students grow into scholars, scholars grow into young professionals, and young professionals grow into leaders who serve their communities. I am pleased to share our success and I am most pleased to share gratitude to Imperial Pacific International. It is my sincere hope that their continued success in the CNMI will lead to further success for this organization and the larger community whom we serve.
Gerard van Gils is executive director of the Marianas Young Professionals and is the CNMI’s 2017 Teacher of the Year.