Investing in futures: Alum couple’s gifts open doors for Cristo Rey Jesuits’ shining stars

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October 8, 2020

By Dana Drazenovich

Emily Sanchez Ambrocio worked 30 hours a week at the Richfield Target to help her family stay afloat after her dad was deported in 2018.

She pulled some all-nighters doing homework for her classes at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis because she wanted to turn in nothing but her best work.

“It was really hard, but I always kept that mindset where,

‘I can’t give up, I can’t give up, I can’t give up.’”

Now, she is looking forward to continuing her Spanish studies and exploring business-related courses at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University.

“I feel like it fits my idea of a perfect college.”

Ignacio Sanchez Romero took on added responsibilities when his mom started working back-to-back jobs after his dad died in 2016. He looked after his two younger brothers and excelled in his demanding AP courses at Cristo Rey Jesuit and in his internship in U.S. Bank’s global corporate trust department through the school’s Corporate Work Study Program.

“It’s been very difficult, but I’ve been able to get through it to overcome some challenges, to keep my grades up.”

Ignacio’s internship has already given him plenty of business experience, and he intends to build on that at CSB/SJU.

Jennifer Agustin Ambrocio performed so impressively in her Corporate Work Study Program internship at Ameriprise Financial that she won the Ryan Family Corporate Workplace Excellence Award. She immersed herself in a variety of other school and family activities and earned National Honor Society-caliber grades.

“I’ve always challenged myself with different class work and classes, so overall I’ve taken five AP classes because I’m a pretty serious student.”

She’s interested in a communication major with the possibility of going to law school.

Fredi Ponce Parra volunteered in the office plus taught Sunday School at Holy Rosary Church in Minneapolis every weekend and spent much of his week doing the extra studying his AP math and science classes required.

“I really had to push myself and stay on track and stay motivated to really try to improve myself and educate myself.”

He has his sights on a nursing major on his way to a career as a nurse anesthetist, and he’s excited to join CSB/SJU’s close community.

“It’s almost like its own town. I really like that.”

Emily, Ignacio, Jennifer and Fredi were shining stars at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, where their leadership and achievements set their course for becoming the first in their families to go to college. Getting accepted to the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University put their goal within reach.

Dan Dryer ’80 and Janet Dryer ’83 helped them tighten their grip on their future with a full scholarship to SJU/CSB’s top-notch Catholic and Benedictine liberal arts education.

Emily, Ignacio, Jennifer and Fredi are the first recipients of the Dryer Scholarship, which will fund a CSB/SJU education for four Cristo Rey Jesuit graduates each year, two Johnnies and two Bennies, with the hope of sending over 100 students to college.

Dryer Scholars will receive $20,000 annually, enough to finance the gap other sources like the Pell Grant and Minnesota State Grant don’t cover.

“It’s expensive to go to a private school, and many people can’t afford it,” Janet said. “We would like to give these students the same opportunity for the great education and college experience that we had.”

It’s the kind of scholarship almost every college-bound student dreams of.

“It’s something I never imagined, to be honest. It gives me the chills,” Jennifer said. 

“I started crying because it’s something that I had always heard about, and I was like ‘Oh my God, a full-ride scholarship.’ That’s so hard to get, I feel like,” Emily recalled.

“To this day I still don’t know how to put my feelings into words. I was just very excited, happy, proud that I was able to get this,” Ignacio said. 

“(My parents) did everything for me, and that’s why I’m doing everything for them. Even though it’s just my mom now, I’m still doing it for my pops because he’s looking down on me and I want him to be proud of me.

“And I know he’s proud of me and he would want to hug me when I got the full ride.”

Setting the Stage

Fredi’s mom was driving to work when he called to tell her about the Dryer Scholarship.

“She had to pull over, and she started crying.”

Emily’s father was still in Mexico fighting a two-year legal battle to return to the U.S., which he eventually won.

“I didn’t want to put any more pressure on my mom,” she said. “So if it wasn’t for that scholarship, I would probably have never ended up going to Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s even though it was my top school.”

Cristo Rey Jesuit’s average annual family income is just under $45,000, said its president, Jeb Myers ’97. The Dryer Scholarship prevents financial concerns from coming between outstanding students and a CSB/SJU education.

“Then on the other side, it helps them and their parents to go beyond the dreams they ever thought possible. I mean, they’re going to Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s, a prestigious institution that will help prepare them for a successful career.”

More than half of Cristo Rey Jesuit’s 124-member class of 2020 were the first in their families to graduate from high school, Myers said.

“Just by crossing the stage and getting their high school diploma, our students are reaching their parents’ dreams, and to go beyond that …”

Funds like the Dryer Scholarship do more than pay for college. They recognize talent, reward excellence and set the stage for what Myers calls “life-sustaining, family-sustaining careers.”

“Personally, for families, they are feeling accepted into society,” Myers said. “They are feeling that they have a shot at success, right? And that’s what our families look for.

“They aren’t looking for a handout. They’re looking for a hand up.”

The Dryers have a deep history of education-based philanthropy and have been involved with Cristo Rey Jesuit for much of its 13-year history, and they are elated they can offer that hand.

“We know the students are excited, but it gives Dan and I such joy to be able to offer this at our own colleges. We both had a wonderful college experience and this is really the reason we were able to launch into our careers,” Janet said.

Funds like the Dryer Scholarship illustrate one of the tangible values of CSB/SJU’s famous network as alumni share their success with a new generation of Johnnies and Bennies.

“I think it’s amazing when they choose to give it back to Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s,  particularly when they can give it directly to a student and they know exactly who that student is and they can see the real financial impact of those dollars for that individual student,” said Matt Beirne ’94, SJU/CSB director of admission.

“I always say it’s real alums helping real students with real money.”

The Dryer Scholarship also supports the personal development only CSB/SJU’s unique partnership and education can offer.

“We get to do what a co-ed institution won’t do and a true single-sex institution can’t do, which is educate women in the presence of men and men in the presence of women,” said Heather Pieper-Olson, CSB associate vice president of Institutional Advancement.

“You get both, and we believe there is value in the opportunities for leadership development and personal growth as men and women, as well as the coeducational academic experience.”

Marrying priorities

It was summer 1985, a couple of years after Janet then-Setter had graduated from CSB, and she was going to her classmate Kitty Dryer’s shower — dateless, at the request of Kitty, who thought Janet might be a good match for her brother Dan.

“So, she basically set us up,” Janet said with a laugh.

Thirty-three years of marriage and three grown children later, the Dryers are still a great match, with a shared dedication to Cristo Rey Jesuit and a mutual love for SJU and CSB, which the Dryer Scholarship unites into one focused program.

“It was very exciting for us to be able to involve all three of these great institutions,” Dan said.

CSB/SJU helped launch the now-retired Dryers into highly successful careers, Dan as the owner of a financial firm, Janet as the CEO who led two Minneapolis tech companies to tremendous growth. The benefits of being a Johnnie or Bennie, they found, transcend the exceptional academics.

“I just felt like so many doors were open to me as a result of my Saint Ben’s education and in turn, we are blessed to be able to pay it forward. As a person of faith, going to a school built on faith and that is steeped in Benedictine values really builds the foundation for wanting to give back,” Janet said. 

“It’s the community,” Dan added. “That’s the secret sauce. The education’s great, the setting’s great, but it really is the community.”

The Dryers wanted to make it possible for more Cristo Rey Jesuit students to taste that secret sauce.

“And we got to thinking ‘Wouldn’t it be great to create an opportunity that supports both our colleges and an organization like Cristo Rey?” Dan said.

“And so it was the perfect fit.”

Strengthening relationships

Jennifer’s parents sent her to CSB with one priority:

“We just want you to show your true colors, the way a person of color can do it as well as a white person,” she said.

When she and the other three Dryer Scholars started classes Aug. 31, they joined a community of 60 more Cristo Rey students currently at SJU and CSB and many more alumni.

The Dryer Scholarship builds on an already strong relationship that traces back to the Cristo Rey Network’s origins in the 1990s. SJU and CSB are among the founding members of the Cristo Rey Network’s national university partners program.

“Almost from the beginning, Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s have been official partners with Cristo Rey, which is why we have Cristo Rey students from across the country,” said Fr. Eric Hollas, OSB, Saint John’s deputy to the president for advancement.

In addition to the Dryer Scholarship, both schools have other funds dedicated to scholarships for Cristo Rey students, and in 2019 Dan ’90 and Angie Bastian not only made their own gift to SJU’s Cristo Rey endowed scholarship fund but also matched gifts from other donors. 

That money helps students “continue the thread,” as Janet put it.

“Even though you graduated from high school, you need the next step, and we both had a great experience with Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s.”

The average student enters ninth grade at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School reading and doing math at a sixth- and seventh-grade level, Myers explained. Cristo Rey’s extraordinary educational model ensures students graduate on time and get into college.

“It’s really an incredible organization. In my opinion it’s the best thing going in Minneapolis education,” Dan said.

Cristo Rey has its own secret sauce in the Corporate Work Study Program.

“These kids don’t just work in the mail room. They actually go in offices in downtown Minneapolis — sometimes it’s the 50th floor of the Wells Fargo Building — and they are actually working and making a difference for these companies.

“And through that, they’re not only earning money (which goes toward their tuition), but they’re learning that they can do it, that this world out there really is open to them, and at the end of the day that is what really makes this work for them.”

That and more make Cristo Rey and CSB/SJU ideal partners, Fr. Eric said.

Extending a hand

Ignacio and Jennifer were a little nervous, Emily and Fredi downright worried.

It was Jan. 29, and Raquel Gudiel ’09, their college counselor at Cristo Rey Jesuit, had told them that CSB/SJU admission representative Annie Doman wanted to meet with them that afternoon.

“So I started freaking out. I was like ‘What if they take my acceptance away?’” Emily said.

“I was thinking the worst things possible,” Fredi said. “I had already gotten my acceptance letter and I thought ‘OK, they don’t want me anymore.’ ’’

That reaction, unfortunately, wasn’t unusual, Myers said.

“A lot of times our students will say ‘I feel like I won the lottery,’ and it’s like, ‘No, you’ve earned it. This is not based on chance. This is the waking up in the morning, going to school, getting your homework done at Cristo Rey, going to work at your corporate job, interacting with people.’ ”

Instead, Doman told them they had been awarded the Dryer Scholarship.

“And at the moment, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I kind of teared up a moment. I thought ‘All my hard work has paid off,’ ” Ignacio said.

“I was completely in shock. I didn’t really believe it. I thought I was dreaming a little bit,” Fredi recalled.

Delivering the news was the highlight of Doman’s year.

“When I was telling the students about this scholarship they were going to receive, I was crying,” she said.

“I think having this opportunity for students, it’s a dream for them. It’s everything they worked so hard for, but they never expected it would play out this way for them.”

Coming together

Their first in-person meeting ended in a full embrace when the Dryers, the scholars and their families got together over dinner Feb. 26 at Giordano’s in Minneapolis.

“It just really secured the fact that this is where we wanted to give our money, and that we had chosen the right cause and that these were just great kids who were driven, and all four of them will be first-generation college students, which made it even more special,” Janet said.

“It was really fun,” Fredi said. “I expected that all of us would be really quiet, but we were all laughing and having fun.”

The Dryers made it clear they would support the scholars as they transitioned from high school to college and beyond, Emily said.

“It wasn’t just ‘Oh, here, take the money. No, they want to be part of this journey with us, and they told us that if we needed anything, we could definitely reach out to them, which I loved.”

As they hugged and said goodbye at the end of the night, everybody felt the impact of one generation of Johnnies and Bennies reaching out to lift up another.

“They were in tears. We were in tears,” Dan said. “It was really emotional.”

Dana Drazenovich is a former journalist and public relations practitioner who teaches Communication at CSB/SJU.