Invest In Me

Keys to success

Aspiring musician and first-generation student forges a path with scholarship support

Zaiendae Smith always hoped to pursue higher education in some form, but he doubted that a four-year university was in his future.

“I didn’t expect to go to college for a number of reasons,” he says. “I knew my parents didn’t have the resources to pay for my education. Plus, I doubted that I would even pass my audition. I didn’t think I was a good enough musician.”

Now a third-year piano performance major in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, Smith has come a long way. In 2017, he was accepted into VCU’s Department of Music, making him the first person in his family to go to college. VCU has been life-changing, Smith says, but navigating higher education as a first-generation college student hasn’t been easy.

“I'm trying to figure things out as I go along,” Smith says. “It just makes the process more difficult. Just getting the money I needed for school was a challenge. If I want help, I have to go and look for it myself. It’s a lot of knocking on doors and saying, ‘Hey, what help is available to me?’”

Smith filed for federal student aid as an independent student, meaning he wasn’t financially supported by his parents. He received some merit- and need-based grants but not enough to cover all of his first-year expenses without dipping into his personal savings and taking out student loans.

“Seeing people receive help from their families or support circles and knowing that I don’t have that can be hard,” Smith says. “It makes me question if I should be doing this.”

Relief came the next fall, when he was awarded the Beverly J. Warren Scholarship. He realized he wouldn’t have to drop out of school and could finish his degree program.

“Receiving this help takes a bit of that weight off and lets me breathe and focus on what’s important,” Smith says. “I’m grateful to have the support to continue my music education, and I have been inspired to someday create my own scholarship fund. I want to have the same profound impact on others that this opportunity has had on me.”