Riko Niyomwungere, 19, is currently a student at North Seattle College participating in the Seattle Promise program, which offers free tuition and wrap-around services. A $50 million fundraising campaign called Equity Can’t Wait is currently underway to make higher education accessible and affordable to all.
When Riko Niyomwungere talks about his future today, his voice is excited and confident. The self-described techie and aspiring programmer envisions a life where he can use his love of computers to build a brighter world while earning a solid living.
It’s a far cry from how he felt just a couple of years ago. Struggling and frustrated in high school, one family member wondered aloud if he’d finish. Indignant, Niyomwungere took it as a challenge and poured on the effort. Pushed by his teachers, he was soon doing better and considering his options beyond graduation.
Going right to work and beginning to earn money was tempting. But one of his teachers told him about the Seattle Promise program, which provides new high school grads in the city with two years of free tuition at one of the three Seattle Colleges — North, South and Central — along with intensive advising, tutoring and mentoring.
“I thought, if all these people are willing to care for me to get this far, why not at least try college?” says Niyomwungere, a Zimbabwe-born, Seattle-raised 19-year-old now studying at North Seattle College. “The last thing I want is to someday be on my deathbed and wonder what would have happened if I had only taken the chance.”
Seattle Promise is one piece of a broad effort to help more students — particularly students of color, and those from lower-income families — to enroll and thrive at Seattle Colleges. In doing so, college and community leaders hope to create a homegrown workforce that can compete for the city’s best jobs.
Students at North Seattle College are pictured in a file photo. The college is one of three in the Seattle Colleges system, which recent high school graduates can attend for free through the publicly funded Seattle Promise program.
“You don’t get far in this city without a post-secondary credential,” Seattle Colleges Chancellor Shouan Pan, Ph.D., notes “Today virtually every job that pays a family wage, and carries any security, requires a degree or professional certificate.”
“The good news is that we’re learning what works for different kinds of students,” Pan says. “In the case of new high school grads, it’s getting them enrolled full-time right away, covering their tuition and coupling it to good support services, and overall taking an active, personal interest in their success.”
That’s what Seattle Promise makes possible. An initiative in large part funded by a 7-year education levy passed by Seattle voters in 2018, it’s a partnership between the City, Seattle Public Schools, and Seattle Colleges.
Currently, more than 845 young Seattleites participate in Seattle Promise, representing one quarter of Seattle Public Schools’ class of 2020. Approximately two-thirds are from families making less than $75,000 a year and 62% are students of color, well above the roughly 50% in the city’s under-18 population overall.
Programs like Seattle Promise are part of a larger campaign at Seattle Colleges called Equity Can’t Wait, a $50 million fundraising campaign to make advanced education accessible and affordable to all.
Each year, more than 40,000 Seattle residents take classes at Seattle Colleges, which are open to everyone regardless of background or past performance in school. But some struggle to make it to their degree or credential, with Black, Latinx and Indigenous students particularly likely to leave early — usually for financial reasons, or because they need more social and academic support. The initiatives associated with Equity Can’t Wait strive to change that.
“The core idea is that it’s long past time to include everyone, of every background, in the amazing opportunities of this world-class city,” says Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap, Ed.D., who serves as president of South Seattle College and Seattle Colleges’ vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion. “There’s so much to love about Seattle, but we must collectively confront our city’s deep racial and economic inequality.”
“For those who want to do something real, investing in our community colleges is a great place to start.”
Seattle Promise students like Niyomwungere make up only a small fraction of students at Seattle Colleges, where the average age is 28. To succeed, older students need significant support, too.
“No matter your age, our colleges are here to lift you up. Whether you’re just starting out or setting a fresh course later in life, you deserve the best we have to give, from instruction, to student services, to financial reinforcement,” says Sheila Edwards Lange, Ph.D., president of Seattle Central College.
Financial support can be especially important: surveys routinely show high percentages of older students experience food insecurity, housing insecurity or even homelessness.
“If an older student has to leave school, they typically don’t make it back, with lifelong implications not just for earnings, but physical and mental health and the stability of their family,” Edwards Lange continues. “Putting additional money into scholarships and other financial support can pay a dividend for generations, so it’s an important part of the Equity Can’t Wait campaign.”
Students are pictured in a file photo at North Seattle College, together with South and Seattle Central one of three institutions that comprise the Seattle Colleges. A $50 million fundraising campaign is currently underway to enroll and support more city residents who have been historically underserved by higher ed.
Taken together, Seattle Colleges educate well over 40% of those doing undergraduate study in the city. Among the more than 130 different programs is an associate’s degree track in computer science, which Niyomwungere is enrolled in at North.
Looking ahead to a bachelor’s, Niyomwungere hopes to transfer to another school or be one of the first to enroll in a four-year computer science program just authorized for community colleges by the Washington Legislature.
A commitment to equity means creating paths for students to reach their goals, North Seattle College President Chemene Crawford, Ed.D., notes.
“The demand for skills in tech is almost limitless,” Crawford says. “That’s why we’re constantly innovating, including new baccalaureate programs.”
Seattle Colleges was among the first traditionally two-year institutions in the country to offer bachelor’s programs — today there are 14, and, with computer science, soon 15.
Students are pictured in a file photo at North Seattle College, one of the three institutions that comprise the Seattle Colleges. The colleges have significantly enhanced their programs of study over the last decade, and plan to begin offering a bachelor’s degree in computer science in coming months.
“Starting these programs, and making them great, is central to Equity Can’t Wait,” Crawford says. “That also means setting students up for success in classrooms that — whatever the discipline — are technologically state-of-the-art.”
As for Niyomwungere, pride is evident in his voice when he talks about his goals for his future.
He looks forward to mastering more programming languages, and also getting good at automation — starting with a machine to brew and serve his morning tea. He’s also recently discovered a talent for poetry. His smile is a little bit shy, a little bit sly as he says, “It’s been said that someone that is working on too many things can’t be a master of any of them. I, however, want to see if I can make that happen.”
Photos and video courtesy of Seattle Colleges Foundation.