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Making the most of the opportunity, resources, investment that come with Step Up scholarship

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a three-part series for Giving Tuesday on how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, provided a bright future for a student from a lower-income family.

By ROGER MOONEY

Tommy Pham spent seven weeks during the summer of 2019 working at a medical clinic in a small town in Guatemala. He traveled to the Central American country on his own, lived with a host family and used the Spanish he learned in high school to communicate.

He worked with the nurses, taking the blood pressure and recording heights and weights of patients. He would give health clinics, teaching the residents how to clean their food and even how to clean their hands before eating.

“I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “You would think that after being away from home in a foreign country for seven weeks that you would be excited to come back home. But for me, I wanted to stay and continue to work. To me, that work felt meaningful.” 

The opportunity arose because of the work Tommy did during his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame, where he is now a sophomore pre-med major with a full scholarship.

He earned the opportunity to go to Notre Dame because of the work he did at Jesuit High School in his hometown of Tampa, Florida. There, Tommy was a top student, active in the school’s clubs and a participant in summer mission trips.

The opportunity to attend Jesuit came about with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Managed by Step Up For Students, the scholarship enables K-12 students from lower-income families receive a private school education.

If Tommy, 19, were to talk to students who received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for the first time, he would use words like “opportunity” and “resources” and “investment,” as in those who donate to the scholarship are investing in your future, so use the resources now available to you and make the most of this opportunity.

(Read Part I and Part II of the three-part series about Tommy)

“It’s really up to them on how much they want to change what they have right now, their own circumstances,” Tommy said. “My own circumstances pushed me to work a little harder, work a little extra so that I could go beyond ‘average.'”

“I’ll have to admit, it’s easier said than done, for sure.”

But it can be done.

Tommy is a good example.

His parents, who emigrated from Vietnam in the mid-1990s, are employed in the service industry, sometimes balancing two jobs as a waiter or waitresses to provide for Tommy and his younger sister, Jennifer, who attends the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

They pushed their children academically so Tommy and Jennifer would never have to run from job to job in an effort to make ends meet.

Tommy is aware of the sacrifices made by his parents. The best way he can thank them, he said, is to max out on his academic opportunities.

He did that at Jesuit, earning a coveted QuestBridge scholarship.

Tommy at a birthday party last summer with his host family
during his seven-week stay in Guatemala.

Students who receive a QuestBridge Scholarship call them life-changing. Started in the mid-2000s at Stanford University, the scholarship provides a full four-year scholarship for top academic students from lower-income families at some of the country’s top colleges and universities.

Tommy, now a sophomore at Notre Dame, is majoring in neuroscience and behavior. He is thinking of becoming a neurosurgeon.

His course load this semester includes organic chemistry II, physics, neuroscience, psychology and theology. He is also conducting research for a way to analyze certain molecules that might inhibit cancer immunotherapy.

He spent the fall break with classmates in West Virginia, helping to build wheelchair accessible paths and picnic areas at the New River Gorge in the southern part of the state.

Tommy was always a top student, but he admits he might not have made it this far without the opportunity provided by Step Up. It allowed him to attend a top academic high school and not be intimidated by classmates who came from wealthier backgrounds.

“With Step Up, I am just like any other kid at Jesuit,” he said. “It feels like the playing field is more balanced. For those being supported by Step Up, we pretty much have the same resources right now like the other students. We don’t have to worry so much about being at a disadvantage. Instead, we can focus on being grateful and thankful for the opportunity that we have as a result of Step Up. The opportunity doesn’t come out of nowhere. People are donating to the scholarship so that we can further our own education, and we should be appreciative of that.

“But what I become is on me. What we have as resources can only push us so far in our lives. But what we do with those resources can really change the outcome of our own lives.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Volunteering at MDA camp in high school helped former Step Up scholar find his life’s calling

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a three-part series for Giving Tuesday on how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, provided a bright future for a student from a lower-income family.

By ROGER MOONEY

Tommy Pham decided he wanted to become a doctor during a week at a Muscular Dystrophy Association summer camp, helping children who have been affected by the disease that weakens the muscles.

There was swimming and horseback riding, dancing and zip-lining. Fun activities, for sure.

But Tommy and the other volunteers were on-call 24 hours a day to help the children eat and shower, brush their teeth and use the bathroom – simple tasks for most, but, monumental obstacles for these young campers.

“It was probably the first time in my life where I had to actually take care of somebody else besides myself,” Tommy said. “It helped me grow as an individual, for sure.”

That growth led Tommy to the University of Notre Dame, where he is a sophomore in the pre-med program.

“It was definitely an experience that called me into the medical field,” Tommy said. “Definitely.”

Tommy, 19, attended the camp the summer before his senior year at Jesuit High, a private Catholic school in his hometown of Tampa, Florida. The life-altering week was one of several of what Tommy called “resources” available at Jesuit that helped shape who he is today.

(Read the first installment of the three-part series about Tommy here.)

There were the academic resources that allowed Tommy to become an honor student and earn a QuestBridge Scholarship that pays for his entire college education.

There were other resources, the clubs and summer volunteer programs, that added to his personal growth.

They were available to Tommy because of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship enables students from lower-income families to attend private schools that best fit their learning needs.

Tommy’s parents are from Vietnam. They emigrated to Florida 25 years ago and both work in the service industry. They often work two jobs each to help care for Tommy and his younger sister Jennifer, a senior at the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa. Jennifer attends the private high school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Tommy understands the sacrifices his parents made with the hope he could attain the American dream. He was eager to use every resource available at Jesuit to move him in that direction.

A neuroscience and behavior major at Notre Dame, Tommy wants to become a doctor that helps those in financial need. That desire to work among the underprivileged was born the summer before his junior year. He spent a week on a mission trip to northern Georgia. While Tommy’s family struggled to make ends meet, this was the first time he experienced extreme poverty.


Tommy spent his fall break at Notre Dame with classmates in West Virginia, helping to build wheelchair accessible paths and picnic areas at the New River Gorge.

“I realized we can do much more than just work in our local community,” Tommy said. “It broadened my idea of community service. It also expanded my comfort zone.”

The courses, clubs and volunteer programs at Jesuit are designed to move the students along to higher education. That was always Tommy’s goal.

“But I didn’t completely understand the whole application process until junior year,” he said. “Realizing, ‘Oh wait, money is a big factor, too.’ I thought maybe if I work hard on my academics that I could eventually get into a top college.”  

And that’s what happened.

The QuestBridge Scholarship was founded by Stanford University in the mid-2000s to give top academic high school seniors from lower-income families the opportunity to attend a top college or university.

Tommy was one of 918 students nationwide from the class of 2018 to earn a QuestBridge scholarship. He was the first from Jesuit to receive one.

He attends school in Indiana, more than 1,100 miles from his hometown. He was introduced during his freshman year to northern winters. For the first time in his life, he saw snow and experienced subfreezing temperatures.

The educational setting is different, but Tommy feels comfortable in his new surroundings. While challenged by the workload associated with pre-med courses, Tommy is prepared.

“I’m much more confident in myself, much more confident in my own abilities,” he said, “just knowing that there is a supportive community (at Notre Dame) that is always willing to help you grow, not only academically but also emotionally and spiritually. Jesuit definitely introduced me to that aspect of learning. For that, I’m very thankful.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Step Up scholarship leads to top grades in high school and pre-med classes at Notre Dame

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a three-part series for Giving Tuesday on how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, provided a bright future for a student from a lower-income family.

By ROGER MOONEY

More than 80,000 fans squeezed their way into Notre Dame Stadium on the first Saturday of November 2019 to see the football team pull off a thrilling last-minute comeback victory.

Normally, Tommy Pham would have been in the student section, screaming himself silly with his schoolmates as the Fighting Irish rallied for the win. But on that Saturday, the sophomore from Tampa, Florida who majors in neuroscience and behavior, found himself in another part of campus, getting a jump on some schoolwork.

Would Tommy loved to have been across campus at the football game? You bet.

But he is in the pre-med track with his sights set squarely on medical school and a career as a doctor, perhaps a neurosurgeon, though Tommy has a few years before he has to pick a specialty.

It’s that ability to ignore distractions and immerse himself in the resources available at his schools that served Tommy well during his four years at Jesuit High in Tampa and now at the University of Notre Dame outside of South Bend, Indiana, which he attends on a full academic scholarship.

If you’re looking for someone who took full advantage of the opportunities provided by a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students, Tommy is your man.

“I’m very blessed knowing I can use these resources to grow emotionally, academically,” Tommy, 19, said, “so that later on in life I can be at the place in my life that my parents have always wanted to be in but couldn’t due to their limited resources.”

Tommy’s parents emigrated from Vietnam to the United States 25 years ago. They are both employed in the service industry, sometimes working two jobs each to make ends meet.

This left Tommy to look after his younger sister, Jennifer, who is nearly two years younger and is a senior at the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa. Like her brother, Jennifer attends a private high school with the help of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

“I was almost like a third parent, in a way,” Tommy said. “I matured much quicker as a child than other kids.”

Tommy’s parents always stressed education. Using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Tommy left his district school for Incarnation Catholic School as a sixthgrader. From there, he scored high enough on the entrance exam to earn a spot at Jesuit.

An honor student who graduated near the top of his class, Tommy turned that Jesuit education into a QuestBridge Scholarship, which covers 100 percent of the cost of his college education.

QuestBridge, is a California-based nonprofit designed to help academically gifted students from low-income families attend some of the top colleges and universities in the country.

Tommy said he has thanked his parents “many, many times” for pushing him academically and pursuing a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

“There were times I wouldn’t see them at home,” he said. “Seeing that cycle for a long time made me realize they definitely made a lot of sacrifices. It takes a lot of energy to do that every single day for 18 years of my life. It definitely pushed me harder to work and minimize the excuses I make for myself.”

Tommy earned a coveted QuestBridge Scholarship because of his academic success at Jesuit High in Tampa.

He has often wondered what his life would look like now had he not received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Given his work ethic and his desire to learn, Tommy knows he would be in college. But where? Would he be in a pre-med program? Would he even want to be a doctor?

He thinks the resources at his neighborhood school would have been limited compared to Jesuit’s.

It was while volunteering at a camp for children with Muscular Dystrophy before his senior year when Tommy realized he wanted to be a doctor. Having seen extreme poverty during a mission trip the previous summer to the Appalachia area of Georgia, Tommy decided he wanted to work with low-income and disadvantaged patients.

“My life could be really different, and I’m not sure if that difference would be a good thing or a bad thing,” Tommy said. “But I know for sure the values I have today were because of the opportunities Jesuit offered. I value education, but I also value personal development, as well, and I’m not sure if that personal development would have been as great like it was for me at Jesuit had I gone to a different school. I definitely value that part of my high school experience, for sure.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Lofty grades, lofty goals lead to QuestBridge Scholarships for Jesuit High graduates

By ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA – Trace Nuss was in the library at Jesuit High School a few weeks before Christmas when he received the email that he called, “absolutely life-changing.” He had been accepted to Princeton University on a QuestBridge Scholarship.

“To know that I will be able to go to one of the top universities, not only in the nation but in the entire world and be supported all the way through financially, means the world to me,” Trace, 18, said. “It’s amazing.”

That same day, fellow senior Miguel Coste Jr., received a similar email from QuestBridge. He had been accepted to the University of Notre Dame.

“I’m grateful,” Miguel, 18, said, “Eternally grateful.”

Both young men attended Jesuit, a catholic high school in Tampa, using Florida Tax Credit Scholarships run by Step Up For Students.

Miguel Coste Jr. (left) and Trace Nuss

Miguel and Trace each scored high enough as eighth graders on Jesuit’s entrance exam to qualify for the school’s financial assistance package, which covered roughly half of the tuition. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarships covered the rest.

“We’re so thankful for Step Up and the opportunity they gave him,” said Lisa Nuss, Trace’s mother. “We wanted him to have every opportunity available to him, and we didn’t want any of our circumstances to get in his way.”

Lofty goals

Based in California, QuestBridge is a nonprofit organization that runs the QuestBridge Scholarship. It was designed to help head-of-the-class students from low-income backgrounds attend some of the country’s best colleges and universities.

For Trace, the scholarship means he can major in history and political science at an Ivy League school while setting the foundation for a career as a civil rights attorney. His goal is to protect the rights of those with mental and physical disabilities to ensure they are not abused, a pursuit forged during his years of working with Special Olympic athletes.

For Miguel, it means he will be first in his family to attend college as he begins his journey toward a career as a doctor who brings quality healthcare to lower-income families and neighborhoods. That quest stems from his economic background and the fact both of his parents suffer from debilitating health issues.

“This,” said Miguel’s mom, Nordis Del Toro, “is absolutely fabulous.”

More than 16,000 high school seniors nationwide applied in 2018 for a QuestBridge Scholarship. Only 1,044 were awarded.

Trace and Miguel join Tommy Pham, also a former Step Up recipient and 2018 graduate, as Jesuit’s only QuestBridge scholars since the program began in 2004. Pham recently completed his freshman year at Notre Dame.

The path to Princeton

Trace is the only child of Lisa and Richard Nuss Jr. Richard suffers from Brown-Séquard syndrome, a neurological condition caused by a lesion in the spinal cord, and is unable to work. Whatever financial hardship that presented certainly didn’t hold Trace back inside or outside the classroom.

He is one of 161 high school seniors nationwide to be named a Presidential Scholar, an honor that came with a trip in June to Washington D.C. and a meet-and-greet with President Donald Trump.

“It’s just amazing to be recognized for all the hard work and dedication I’ve put into my studies,” he said.

Trace scored a 1550 on his SAT, graduated high school with an unweighted 4.0 GPA and was a National Merit semifinalist. He was a member of Jesuit’s Key Club, the Tampa Mayor’s Youth Corps and received the H. Norman Schwarzkopf Leadership Award from the West Point Society.

Trace was honored in March by the Tampa Bay Lightning as a Community Hero of Tomorrow. (Photo provided by the Tampa Bay Lightning)

Trace was honored in March as a Community Hero of Tomorrow by the Tampa Bay Lightning for his work with Special Olympics, something he began doing during his freshman year at Jesuit.

“Once I was there, some of the athletes were like, ‘Oh Trace, can you come to our football practice? Can you come to our volleyball practice? And I slowly and slowly got more involved with all the different sports that Special Olympics offers and got to see how life-changing these activities are for people,” he said.

The Lightning awards $50,000 to a community hero every home game. Half goes to the student’s education; the other half goes to a charity of his choice. Trace chose the Special Olympics of Florida and Superstars of Hillsborough.

The Lightning provide a suite for the Community Hero honoree. Trace filled it with Special Olympic athletes.

A captain of Jesuit’s bowling team as a senior, Trace received a scholarship from the U.S. Bowling Congress, was named to the Dexter High School All-American Bowling Team and received the 2019 Chuck Hall Stars of Tomorrow Award by the International Bowling Campus Youth Committee.

He recently competed in his second Teen Masters, the top tournament for teenage bowlers.

Trace, who carries a 209 average and once bowled a 300 game as a freshman, coaches and supervises the Superstars Bowling League in Tampa for bowlers with physical and cognitive disabilities.

“He’s an inherently good person who’s kind and compassionate,” Lisa Nuss said. “He’s wanted to change the world for as long as I can remember.”

One of the more impactful moments of his high school career came last summer during a Jesuit-sponsored mission trip to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. There, Trace and several of his classmates encountered children living in extreme poverty.

“Their life was such hardship and difficulty that it’s something that I’ll never experience,” Trace said. “It was kind of a life-changing moment to see how the poverty in some places in the country and how much it needs to be changed and aided.”

When he returned home, Trace wrote a note to his mom, thanking her for letting him attend the mission. Then he filled a few boxes with toys and supplies and mailed them to the reservation.

“I’m truly thankful for the Step Up scholarship,” Trace said. “I feel that’s what drives me to service, because someone is doing the service for me, so I want to give back to the community, give back to other people. I want to pay it forward.”

The path to Notre Dame

Miguel will major in premed and minor in poverty studies.

Why poverty studies?

“I enjoy helping people in that state of living,” he said.

Since his freshman year, Miguel has volunteered at Tampa Bay Harvest, an organization that collects and distributes food to the hungry and homeless in the bay area.

“I think that helped him set his goal when he realized how many people in this world are needy,” Nordis said.

Miguel (top) captured a district wrestling title during his senior year.

Like Trace, Miguel has an unweighted 4.0 GPA and was a member of Jesuit’s Key Club. He scored a 1510 on the SAT, is an AP Scholar with Distinction and was a tri-valedictorian of his graduation class.

He also served as a peer minister and an alter server during his four years in high school.

Last winter, Miguel won a district championship as a member of Jesuit’s wrestling team.

His parents, Miguel Coste Sr., and Nordis, endured their own hardship when they emigrated from their native countries – Miguel Sr. from the Dominican Republic when he was 30; Nordis from Cuba when she was 8.

Miguel Sr. was born without the use of his left arm. He managed to find work as a truck driver until he was injured 10 years ago and forced to retire. He does not speak English well, but managed to volunteer his time at Jesuit as often as possible during the last four years.

Nordis worked at a printing company before having to quit because of diabetes and arthritis.

The couple is also raising two granddaughters because their mother is in prison.

Miguel works at a restaurant to help his parents pay some bills. He also volunteers this summer in the interventional radiology department at St. Joe’s Hospital in Tampa.

Those who apply for a QuestBridge Scholarship are required to write a series of essays – some general, others aimed at a specific school.

One essay asked applicants to write about themselves.

“I wrote about what drives me, my parents and the sacrifices they made, and my siblings, they didn’t meet their potential and how that motivated me,” Miguel said. “I see everything kind of as a competition, because that’s what it is. You’re competing when you go to school. You’re competing to get a better education to be more successful. I used my socioeconomic status and everyone around me as a competition. I didn’t deliberately think about it. It was a subconscious one.”

Nordis first heard her son talk of being a doctor when he was a sophomore.

“Junior year, he was insisting he was going to be a doctor,” he said. “I was so proud of him. Not many kids his age have their goals set up on being a doctor.”

The right situation

Miguel and Trace set themselves up for college during their time at Jesuit. Trace figured he was heading to the University of Florida.

“I had always been a Gator fan,” Trace said. “I always loved the University of Florida. I never thought these schools outside of Florida were a possibility.”

Miguel was interested in Florida, Florida State and Boston College.

Then, during their junior year, Fernando Rodriguez, Jesuit’s director of college counseling, told them both about QuestBridge.

As they moved through the application process, they were matched with some of the top colleges in the country. So, Miguel added Vanderbilt and Notre Dame to his list of colleges. Trace added Notre Dame and Princeton.

Now, Miguel is headed Notre Dame.

“I was fortunate enough to be placed in the right situation to succeed,” Miguel said, “and (QuestBridge) recognize that.”

And Trace is headed to Princeton.

“The Ivy League wasn’t even … that’s like a dream,” Trace said. “I didn’t think that was even possible. It’s been some road.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

About Jesuit High School

Established in 1899, Jesuit High has 800 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12. Jesuit provides a college prep curriculum to prepare students for higher education. Tuition is $16,765 plus fees. Need-based financial aid and merit scholarships are available to those who qualify.