Out of the Blue and Into the Red: Red Thread Grants Make a Mark

Náamah Leerdam ‘19
Náamah Leerdam ‘19 at the Colosseum in Rome, after a Red Thread Grant assisted with the cost of passport fees.

More than a catchy rhyme, “Red Thread” is a grant program created in fall 2016 to provide financial support to Denison students. And in under a year, the impact of this program is already palpable—making opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible a reality and alleviating some of students’ financial stress, allowing them to focus on academic success.

Denison’s 2016 Report on Students’ Financial Well-Being identified several financial barriers to student success, particularly for low-income and middle-income students. The project found that students with fewer economic resources were less likely to participate in fee-bearing opportunities like student organizations with associated costs or courses with additional fees. The report also illuminated the significance of unanticipated urgent expenses, like medical care, dental care, or car trouble, on students’ success and overall well-being.

In response to the report, through the generosity of a Denison alumnus, Sandy Thomson ‘59, and his wife, Sally ‘59, the Office of Student Development established Red Thread Grants, small grants that provide financial support to students. Mr. Thomson explains the significance of this:

An unanticipated and seemingly inconsequential event can develop into a substantial concern for a college student who must be very careful about making ends meet. Replacing a broken pair of prescription eyeglasses can be expensive. A dead battery in a car that is needed to hold a part-time job off campus will require roadside service that must be paid—often in cash. Emergency dental care should not be postponed and could be expensive. A number of students can find these types of ‘out of the blue’ occurrences take valuable time and an on-hand cash reserve to resolve as quickly as possible. Such events can be a significant problem for a student finding oneself ‘in the red.’ Sally and I wanted to help launch the Red Thread Grants Program in order to establish a safety net for Denison students caught in a cash emergency. We do not want any situation to balloon into a problem that might damage a student’s academic progress or compound financial concerns.”

In its first year, the fund provided support to 54 students. Students recognize how the fund has lessened some of their financial stress, allowing them to devote more attention to their coursework. Because of a Red Thread Grant, one student could pay for dental work to have a painful tooth removed. Afterward, he smiled and said he was finally able to sleep again and focus on his courses. Another student, Marilyn Virgen ‘17, needed assistance as she was about to graduate. She discusses the impact of the grant sharing, “I am a first-generation student that had to manage, make, and help my family when possible, with my own finances. As a graduating senior many expenses piled up and I was overwhelmed and scared about not being able to cover living expenses. The Red Thread helped me have a slight peace of mind, and for that I am very appreciative.”

In addition to emergency expenses, these grants have also allowed students to participate in opportunities they otherwise couldn’t. One student had wanted to ride a horse her entire life but was never able to do so growing up because her parents didn’t have the resources for her to be able to join clubs. This grant allowed her to join the Denison Equestrian Club to participate in the very activity she had been dreaming about, giving her the opportunity to try something new. As another example of how the grant can turn hopes into reality, Náamah Leerdam ‘19 received a grant to pay for passport fees. The grant enabled her to obtain a passport, which allowed her to enroll in a course that traveled to Rome and the Bay of Naples during the summer. She reflects on what receiving the grant meant to her, saying “The Red Thread Grant has shown me that my Denison community is a support system and resource to accomplish incredible things. This experience made me feel included in Denison's culture of studying abroad. It has helped me expand my interest to various parts of the world and their histories. My trip to Italy reminded me that learning isn't limited to a classroom.”

So beyond a catchy rhyme, what actually does Red Thread symbolize? The name “Red Thread” signifies the powerful connection among generations of Denisonians—Denison alumni, Sandy and Sally Thomson ‘59, providing support to current students, with the hope that this generation of students, and recipients in particular, will one day look back and provide support to future students—thus symbolizing the invisible “red thread” that ties all Denisonians together. This grant is a tangible example of the way that Denisonians care for one another and look out for one another, just another reminder of how special this place truly is.

July 14, 2017