Pagan scholarship winners, literal and figurative

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DETROIT, Mich. — Pagan high school students in this state have a college scholarship just for them, which is at best a rare and unusual opportunity. The Michigan Pagan Scholarship Fund has its roots in the story of a young girl who met a tragic end due to bullying, and her mother’s determination to transform that legacy into a something positive.

At this moment, the idea of Pagan scholarships is on the cusp of becoming a movement which could transform lives throughout the country, and perhaps beyond. It’s an appropriate time to remember the history which led to this moment, celebrate this year’s winner, and look at where the building momentum may lead in the years to come.

Michigan Pagan Scholarship winner for 2017 announced

This year’s winner is Arianna Napolitano, a Flint resident who is planning on attending Northern Michigan University, where she hopes to build on her interest and experience in graphic design. Napolitano was not available to be interviewed in time for this story, and her winning essay has not yet been published on the fund’s web site.

As in years past, Napolitano had to demonstrate that’s she’s been a practicing Pagan for at least a year and achieved at least a 2.5 grade-point average in school. Letters of recommendation speaking to her Pagan involvement, commitment to service, and likelihood of continued academic success were also required to win an award of $500 annually for four years.

To finance this and past scholarships, money is raised at events and directly from businesses and organizations.

In 2017, the organizations receiving accolades and gratitude are the Magical Education Council, Witches of Michigan, Candle Wick Shoppe, Coventry Creations, Midwest Witches’ Ball, and Wolf Run Sanctuary. The fund itself is managed through the Universal Society of Ancient Ministry.

Legacy of Tempest Smith

Creating the Michigan Pagan Scholarship Fund was a commitment made by USAM leader Gordon Ireland, when he learned that the Tempest Smith Foundation was closing.

The foundation, named for a girl who committed suicide at just 12 years old after years of bullying over her Pagan religion and many other topics, was created by one of her mothers to encourage tolerance. That woman, Denessa Smith, herself died in 2008, but her partner — Tempest’s other mother — followed through on the dream of creating a scholarship in 2010.

Tempest Smith

The foundation received a tremendous amount of support in the local Pagan community; the work formally began with a ritual at Convocation in 2003. In the five years that Denessa was at the helm, she used it to become “the local voice for diversity tolerance,” according to a 2013 Wild Hunt article on that work. Crossman decided to “pass the torch” in 2014, closing the foundation after nine $500 scholarships had been awarded to high school seniors who applied by writing 300-word essays on the meaning of tolerance.

Ireland, at the time, was involved in many aspects of the Michigan Pagan community, including the popular Midwest Witches’ Ball and the Michigan Pagan of the Year award. The new scholarships had a more rigorous application process than those offered through TSF, and the Pagan connection was made explicit.

While Gordon has since retired from organizing everything under the sun, the framework for these Michigan scholarships was solid enough that it did not rely on the efforts of a single individual, as had been the case with Crossman and the TSF scholarships.

The future: grants and scholarships for more Pagans

Ireland’s efforts haven’t just ensured that Michigan high school Pagans have a scholarship opportunity; the administrative systems now in place could benefit Pagans nationwide if Charissa Iskiwitch has anything to say about it.

The founder of the Pagan Business Network would like to use her extensive network of fellow business owners to bring scholarships to more Pagan students, and even grants to Pagan business owners in need of a kick-start.

“I love my Michigan people, but I’m not in Michigan,” Iskiwitch said.

That’s why she approached organizers of that scholarship about sponsoring others for Pagans in other parts of the country. In addition, she is looking at opening up the criteria to include Pagans at different points in their educational journey.

Watching Ireland from afar, Iskiwitch saw how hard he worked to line up sponsors for the Michigan scholarship. Those relationships are still in place, and she understands the value in donating money that will benefit a local student. In short, she wouldn’t want to see that end. On the other hand, she believes that there are other Pagan business owners who might like the idea of putting their name on a scholarship of their own.

The partnership, as Iskiwitch described it, would rely on the existing scholarship administration system employed at USAM, with Iskiwitch herself doing the work of rustling up donations from her network. These awards would be the size of the old TSF scholarships: $500, paid just once.

Recipients will be allowed to reapply year after year as long as they’re eligible. Should a business owner donate enough to fund an award, they will have the right to name the scholarship; if several get together and pool their funds, they’ll have to work the naming out among themselves.

“We will approach events and businesses, many of which seek charities to donate to,” Iskiwitch explained, and hopefully more than one scholarship a year would be awarded as a result.

“We have a big social media network, and they’d also benefit from our marketing efforts.”

[Photo Credit: Digital Ralph / Flickr]

Eligibility will also be more open, no longer just for high school seniors heading to an accredited college. Certification programs, including programs less likely to be funded such as those for alternative healing modalities, will be included. That will make the verification process more challenging; Iskiwitch acknowledged that the details have not been finalized on that as yet.

Although she has a preference for nationwide scholarships, and that’s what she will likely sponsor herself through her business Charissa’s Cauldron, Iskiwitch understands from the Michigan success that there’s a value to local community. That’s why she’s clear that this “will not take away from the Michigan program. Some business owners might be more apt to put their money into their local area,” and thus any donors will have a say as to the geographic requirements for a scholarship they are sponsoring.

Iskiwitch had another brainchild, one which will bring together USAM and PBN to award grants to Pagan business owners. Again, administration would be handled through the USAM nonprofit organization. In this case, the awards would be framed as grants which carry the PBN twist of business education.

“By the time a business owner has completed their application, they will have a full business plan,” Iskiwitch said, which is a tool often neglected by new entrepreneurs.

“It’s a way to give a business owner a cash start and some education,” she said. Applications would go through PBN, but winners would be picked by USAM officials. In the end, everyone who applies will end up being a winner, because they’ll have a much clearer idea of how to grow a business.

Expanding the scholarship program will also result in many more winners than simply the recipients: businesses and organizations seeking ways to donate money or alternatives to obtain name recognition, the hardworking volunteers who win by seeing their efforts change lives, and the Pagan communities overall, as the culture of helping one another is deepened through these programs.