Making waves in the talent pool

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When Fatima Ahmad, a junior at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, graduates next spring, she’ll earn a degree in her own custom-created major, which incorporates three concentrations: economics, philosophy and entrepreneurial management. After graduation, she aspires to work on economic development in Africa. “I want to empower entrepreneurs to create development and economic opportunity,” she says.


In her own studies, Ahmad has been empowered through an alliance between Wallin Education Partners and U.S. Bank. As a U.S. Bank Scholar through the Wallin program Ahmad will receive an annual scholarship as well as ongoing individual support and career opportunities. 


Wallin began as a private family foundation, founded in 1992 by Winston Wallin, a former

presidentof Pillsbury and CEO of Medtronic, and his wife, Maxine. Wallin’s own college education was made possible by the GI Bill, so when he found himself in a position to give back, he started the scholarship program for low-income students. It soon attracted other donors interested in the program’s high-touch approach and successful results. In 2007, Wallin Education Partners, a separate nonprofit organization, was established and has grown to include more than 60 individual, family, foundation and corporate donors.



More than 4,000 students have received support. Currently the program consists of 540 first-generation low-income students, many of whom are people of color. The 92 percent six year graduation rate sets Wallin Education Partners apart from other traditional scholarship programs. 


“Wallin has been very fortunate to have such generous donors over the years. Some have supported more than 100 students others, one or two,” says Susan Basil King, Executive Director of Wallin Education Partners. “All of our donor partners value the high return on their philanthropic investment and the personal connection they develop with their scholars.” 


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Facing Challenges


“For some students in the Wallin program, the rigor of college academics is a barrier to success, as is the fact that many don’t have parents or other family members who have gone to college and can help them navigate this new environment,” King says. “Scholars may not have the networking skills that students from high-income families have, so they benefit greatly from the network Wallin provides."


Wallin supports its scholars financially and with broader support services to help them throughout college, particularly during their first year. The financial component amounts to $4,000 annually from Wallin, which, when combined with other financial aid, goes a long way toward making college affordable. About 40 percent of the students in the program graduate with no debt, and for those who do have loans to repay, the average is $17,000, about half of what the typical Minnesota college student faces, according to The Institute for College Access Success.


Students in the program may attend college in five states: Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota or Wisconsin, as well as at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in any state. The goal is to nurture talented young people who will continue to contribute to the region’s economic growth.


To fund its work, Wallin partners with more than 60 donors, including 14 corporations. U.S. Bank currently sponsors 30 students, including 10 each from the classes of 2015 and 2016, and another 10 who will begin college in fall 2017. Partner organizations participate in career fairs and frequently hire students like Ahmad as interns. Ahmad, for instance, held a summer internship in U.S. Bank’s Wealth Management group.


“Wallin students are low-income, high-potential students—often first-generation college students,” says Jennie Carlson, Executive Vice President of Human Resources at U.S. Bank in Minneapolis. “They represent our entire community, our customers and our employees. Our goal is to be inclusive and cast a wider net for talent than we may have in the past. Wallin helps us to do this by reaching students we might not otherwise see.”


Benefiting from Diversity


The Twin Cities area is home to large immigrant populations of both Hmong and Somali groups—including the Ahmad family. Ahmad’s parents, who are from Somalia, met as refugees in Pakistan and came to the United States after their daughter was born. 


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Ahmad excelled in high school, but because her parents were unfamiliar with the American college experience, she felt intimidated by the large university setting. Like all Wallin scholars, she was assigned an advisor who checked in with her several times in her first year and helped her with responsibilities such as selecting classes. “It gave me a network of people who are so incredibly supportive,” Ahmad says. “I feel like it’s this big family.”


That family extended to her summer internship with U.S. Bank, where Ahmad analyzed how the company’s wealth management markets can better work with the rest of the bank to develop client relationships. 


While students benefit from internship training and exposure to potential career paths, corporate sponsors such as U.S. Bank benefit by bringing in young people with fresh ideas.


Katie Lawler, Global Chief Ethics Officer at U.S. Bank and a Wallin board member, notes that research indicates diverse companies perform better financially: “When you get a group of diverse people who apply their own values, thoughts and cultural experiences toward solving a problem, you’re going to avoid groupthink and get better outcomes.”


Closing the Achievement Gap


Wallin and corporate partners such as U.S. Bank hope this work will help combat inequality and prepare students for careers that increasingly require a college degree. Students from low-income families lag far behind their wealthier peers in attaining a bachelor’s degree. Nationally, 77 percent of students from families in the top-income quartile earn a college degree, compared with only 9 percent of students from families in the lowest-income quartile. Wallin would like to change this trend by expanding its donor base to serve more students. Each year, Wallin turns away hundreds of qualified applicants due to a lack of scholarship funds.


“Today, there is a significant achievement gap—our communities of color have significantly higher unemployment rates and lower graduation rates,” Lawler says. “If something doesn’t change, we are projected to have a serious labor shortage in our community for the skilled workers our businesses will need. The work that organizations like Wallin are doing helps to bridge that achievement gap. We are looking at this as a talent opportunity instead of pure philanthropy.”


For more information, visit the website or contact Susan Basil King at