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Jenny Brunner was dealing with an exhausting, yet-to-be-diagnosed heart condition when an email arrived announcing that she was awarded a Bright Promise Scholarship.
“I just thought it was the coolest thing. I was so excited,” recalls Brunner, a 20-year-old from Spokane Valley who arrived at Eastern Washington University with two years of Running Start credits under her belt.
The scholarship came just in time to help Brunner, who was too physically drained to continue working full-time as a supervisor at T.J. Maxx, finish her senior year and graduate with the class of 2022. “Between the academic scholarship I got from Eastern and the Bright Promise Scholarship, that covered everything. I didn’t have to work at all, which was really amazing,” Brunner says.
Since its launch in 2008, the Bright Promise Program has helped more than 300 college students in Spokane County, including many from Eastern Washington University, earn life-changing degrees.
Bright Promise was started by Eastern alumnus James DeWalt, president and CEO of Associated Industries, a membership-based employers association serving members in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Texas, in partnership with Keith VanderZanden. VanderZanden is based in Seattle as executive vice president for Advanced Professionals Insurance and Benefit Solutions, the wholesale benefits practice of Newfront Insurance, headquartered in San Mateo, California.
Associated Industries, founded in 1910, provides a wide range of employer services, including employment law, human resources, training and comprehensive medical benefits to over 600 member-companies and 14,000 participants. The scholarships are awarded in areas of study that reflect Associated Industries’ membership and their professional disciplines, which include business, technology, industrial arts and healthcare.
While there have been several other individuals and organizations involved over the years, the generosity of Associated Industries and Newfront has been particularly noteworthy. Since the scholarship’s founding, the firms have contributed in equal amounts annually to cover half-tuition scholarships for EWU undergraduate and graduate students. Students at Community Colleges of Spokane are also beneficiaries.
“It is super rewarding to be a part of something that is helping students to pursue not only their higher education, but also their dreams,” VanderZanden says.
Over the years, DeWalt has personally read each of the estimated thousand-plus applications submitted. Awards follow a collaborative review process that includes Associated Industries’ board of directors, staff and community members and VanderZanden and his team across the state.
“We try to be as thoughtful and deliberative as we possibly can because we really want these students to succeed,” DeWalt says.
Both men said that the personal statements in which students share their backgrounds, challenges, hopes and dreams are the most impactful part of the applications. The evaluation team takes a holistic approach, DeWalt says, recognizing that people who have the capacity to succeed in the workplace don’t always blossom in high school.
“I wasn’t a great athlete. I wasn’t a Rhodes Scholar,” says DeWalt, who credits an EWU faculty member with believing in him and encouraging him to earn a master’s degree, which he earned while living in Seattle from the University of Washington. “My experience at Eastern made me what I am today.”
And what DeWalt “is today” is the leader of a successful long-standing company who is a champion of uplifting students and encouraging friends and colleagues to do the same.
As Dewalt tells others, it doesn’t take a huge donation to make a difference for students: “Two hundred and fifty dollars can be the difference between a student staying in college or dropping out to work.”
Over the years, Bright Promise has helped a significant number of single mothers and returning students. The team, for example, recently awarded a scholarship to a married father of two who transitioned out of the U.S. Army after seven years of service as a helicopter pilot and plans to study engineering and business at Eastern.
For Brunner, the well-timed Bright Promise Scholarship arrived while doctors had yet to figure out what was causing her health problems. Her ordeal included a dozen trips to the emergency room, multiple scans, some 50 doctor and specialist visits and five weeks of wearing a heart monitor 24-7.
Finally, she was diagnosed with supra ventricular tachycardia, a form of arrhythmia that affects the heart’s upper chambers, and postural orthostatic tachycardia, a blood-flow disorder that often causes lightheadedness and fainting. Brunner underwent a first heart surgery in April – and didn’t miss a beat in earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in finance and marketing in June. Just days after donning a cap and gown, she underwent a second heart surgery. Throughout the entire exhausting experience, the hardworking student missed just one class.
With plans to become a wealth advisor and establish her own practice, Brunner is grateful for the Bright Promise Scholarship that helped her reach the finish line without student debt. “It was a bright thing at a bad time,” she says.