Some of the happiest times of their lives

“If something contributed to your happiness or your success in life, my father instilled in me that you need to always give back,” says Ed Jennings (A.B. 1969; Teacher Certification, School of Ed. ’69).

From serving on the board of a nonprofit performing arts organization in honor of the music education that Ed, an organist, was fortunate to receive in his youth, to supporting the West Coast university where their daughter flourished, Ed and Mary (U-M 1992) Jennings have found meaningful ways to champion the things that have enriched and transformed their lives. So, when they started to think about estate planning, it wasn’t a tough decision for them to designate the University of Michigan as a beneficiary of their plan. They’re giving back to create opportunities for a broad and diverse range of students to more fully engage in all the opportunities available within a Michigan education.

“Those were four of the happiest years of my life,” says Ed, from the couple’s home in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he retired from a successful 30+ year career in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. “I’ve been rather fortunate in my career and, when I look back on the factors that contributed to my success, having a degree from the University of Michigan was a big plus.”

For Mary, the experience was even more profound. She describes her time at Michigan, where she completed Ph.D. coursework in education administration and policy, as a luxury. By then, she’d been working as a teacher for over twenty years. “I worked my way through my bachelor’s and master’s degrees,” says Mary. “I never had the luxury of full-time study until my two semesters in Ann Arbor. It was the first time I had the joy—the absolute joy—of going to school to just study, which is why it’s so dear to me.”

That’s one of the reasons she and Ed have chosen to support scholarships for students in LSA’s Comprehensive Studies Program (CSP) with a planned gift. Another is their awareness of how tough it can be for first generation college students and students from underserved communities and under-resourced high schools to adapt and thrive in college.

“I am one of those people. I was a first generation college student,” says Mary, who is one of fourteen siblings. “My parents could not afford to send us to college, nor did they know anything about how college worked. I have lived surrounded by the story of ‘not having the opportunity but having the ability.’”

Improving student success

Studying alongside peers who have had access to a full menu of high school AP classes when your school, by comparison, offered none can be intimidating. So can being a first generation student on a campus that attracts the children of doctors, lawyers, hedge fund managers, and prominent politicians. CSP aims to neutralize disadvantages that are beyond students’ control, like attending a high school with limited resources or a family’s lack of generational knowledge about college life. To do so, the program offers a customized mix of academic supports:  dedicated advisers who take a holistic approach; tutoring; intensive small-group sessions of core university courses; mentoring; and workshops on networking, time management, and study skills—all aimed at filling the gaps in college preparedness.

Since it was established in 1983, CSP, which includes the Summer Bridge Program, has helped level the academic playing field for nearly 3,000 students from the smallest towns, the biggest cities, the broadest range of family backgrounds, and, sometimes, the most challenging high school settings.

“I have a strong sentiment about the environmental opportunities for high school students, or lack thereof, because kids don’t have any control over that,” adds Mary. “CSP’s adviser component is very strong in helping students navigate college, and I think that is really critical.”

CSP advisers help students discover resources, explore and identify their strengths, and develop an individualized track to achieve their academic and career, as well as social and personal, objectives. They encourage students to acknowledge and embrace the first generation experience, in part to foster supportive peer relationships. And they encourage students to recognize and celebrate their accomplishments and serve as mentors to newer students.

CSP students are thriving at the University of Michigan. Over the last thirty-plus years, the program has seen significant increases in student numbers, and significant expansion of its curriculum and services. Data from CSP’s Summer Bridge Program illustrates the impact of a combination of holistic supports like intensive academic preparation, highly individualized academic advising, and the personal attention of faculty in an intensive, yet nurturing environment. The Summer Bridge Program serves approximately 250 students each year who are admitted to the university the summer before their first fall semester to acclimate to college life and complete three courses: English, mathematics, and a first-year seminar. Summer Bridge Scholars have full access to CSP resources throughout their undergraduate years. The six-year graduation rate for students who participate in Summer Bridge as first-year students is 86.2 percent, compared to the national six-year graduation rate of 60 percent. Additionally, 95 percent of Summer Bridge students complete their first year and return for their second year.

“We are exceedingly grateful that Ed and Mary Jennings have chosen to include the Comprehensive Studies Program in their estate plan so that we will be able to further our mission of providing equitable and accessible education to all students,” said CSP Director Kierra Trotter. “Thanks to donor support like this, future generations of CSP scholars will be able to grow, learn, and thrive in our community and in the broader community at the University of Michigan.”

Creating space for new students to thrive with a planned gift

The Jennings made annual gifts to the general LSA fund for need-based student support for several years before deciding to create a legacy gift. They intend to split their bequest between CSP and the U-M Alumni Association’s LEAD Scholars Program. The LEAD Scholars Program supports the traditions of leadership, excellence, achievement and diversity of the university by providing scholarships to African American, Latino, or Native American students. The U-M Alumni Association takes full financial and administrative responsibility for the LEAD Scholars Program.

For Ed and Mary, establishing a planned gift was a natural part of estate planning. While planning for the future, they looked back at how important their experiences at Michigan had been and asked, “What can we do?” Now they're helping to ensure that all talented students have access to the joy of a University of Michigan education.