Wayne State University

Alumna who received, now gives through a scholarship in her daughter’s memory

Alumna who received, now gives through a scholarship in her daughter’s memory
Debra Keller shares her story with fellow Anthony Wayne Society members at the Jazz at the Jacob event in May 2016.

“Without schools like Wayne State, welfare mothers don’t become senior managers at manufacturing companies,” said Debra Keller ’87 B.S., who recently shared her story at Jazz at the Jacob, an event for members of the Anthony Wayne Society, Wayne State’s donor recognition society.

Now a product quality manager at Eaton Corporation, Debra was on an uncertain path growing up in East Detroit. Married with a young daughter at age 20, Debra and her family received welfare and relied on Focus: HOPE’s community food bank for meals.

After Debra had her second daughter, she realized that a stable future hinged on a solid education. With the guidance of her paternal grandmother, who she says was a “strong mentoring figure” in her life, Debra enrolled in the chemical engineering program at Wayne State.

“I thrived in a learning environment that provided opportunity to an older, poor, working student like me,” Debra said. “When I struggled in physics, for example, my professor arranged for me to be tutored by one of his graduate students. I felt like I belonged.”

For her first two years at Wayne State, Debra’s tuition was paid through a mix of scholarships and Pell Grants that put her degree within reach. But when she received a paid summer internship and her husband began a new minimum wage job, their family’s increased income disqualified her from Pell Grant funding.

That’s when Wayne State stepped in, offering Debra a Board of Governors Scholarship that allowed her to finish her degree. She graduated with honors and began a job at Ford Motor Company three days later. While acknowledging her own perseverance, Debra asserts it was Wayne State’s support that ultimately helped her succeed. “I’m fairly certain that if Wayne State had not given me the Board of Governors Scholarship, I would never have completed my undergraduate degree,” she said.

While working at Ford, and helping her family live a more stable life, Debra experienced hardship of a different kind, losing her youngest daughter Nicolette to a brain tumor in 1991.

To honor her daughter’s dream of one day becoming a biologist, Debra established the Nicolette Therese Keller Endowed Scholarship, which helps students finish their degrees in Wayne State’s biological sciences program.

Nicolette’s memory endures through a gift that provides students the opportunity and warm welcome Debra received at Wayne State years prior. “Any extra money I have is going to Wayne State, where it is needed and can help do more good,” she said.

Debra Keller and her scholarship recipient, Clare Surmont, with President M. Roy Wilson and First Lady Jacqueline Wilson at the Jazz at the Jacob event.

Clare Surmont can attest to the impact the scholarship has had on her academic and professional development. As a recipient of Debra’s scholarship, Clare was able to visit the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium as she worked toward her degree in biology. “Without the scholarship, I would not have been able to have that experience,” she said. “I just couldn’t afford it.”

The trip provided Clare the opportunity to learn in an ecosystem strikingly different than Michigan, yet contending with some of the same issues. “For example,” she noted, “excess nutrients in the water and pollution…it doesn't matter if it is fresh water or salt, it will affect the environment.”

At the Jazz at the Jacob event, Clare met Debra, who was there to connect with other donors and share her own giving story.

“Debra was very nice and friendly, and her story was so touching,” Clare said. “It was great to meet her, and I’m really thankful for her scholarship.”

(June 6, 2016)

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