The future depends on Stephanie Felix — and students just like her.

The Payson High School student wants to become a pediatrician. But that’s a costly, lofty ambition for a kid from a rural community.

Well, not necessarily.

Felix hasn’t graduated high school, but she’s already got a year of college under her belt — thanks to the groundbreaking partnership between the Aspire Arizona Foundation, the MHA Foundation, Payson High School and Eastern Arizona College-Payson.

And that’s just the start of it.

At the recent awards breakfast to celebrate the 349 Payson students who have completed $161,000 worth of dual-enrollment EAC-Payson classes, she learned the MHA Foundation is also helping fund a University of Arizona training program in town for medical students interested in practicing in rural areas. The MHA Foundation also has $20,000 worth of scholarships for students in medical fields available.

Moreover, at the breakfast Dr. Alan Michels offered her a chance to do a job shadowing internship at his clinic. He’s heading up the medical school training program for MHA. She can even get high school class credit for that job shadowing, thanks to a new internship program.

That’s exactly the opportunity Aspire Arizona Foundation (AAF) hoped to create when it launched its dual-enrollment college program and other initiatives.

“This has changed the trajectory of their lives,” said AAF board member Chelle Barth.

And it’s working.

Between 2015 and 2017, the number of PHS students who have enrolled in two- or four-year colleges jumped 50%, according to figures compiled by the Arizona Board of Regents and released by AAF. Payson High School went from well below the state average to comfortably above the average.

Statewide, 56% of high school graduates enrolled in two- and four-year college programs in 2017. But in Payson, the number hit 69% — just above the national average. In 2015, only about 46% of Payson students enrolled in college.

So the backers of the program had a lot to celebrate at the annual breakfast for 60 students at The Rim Club on Jan. 31. The breakfast also honored the donors who in the current school year donated $38,000 to support the program.

School board members, teachers and students mingled with donors and supporters to celebrate the unusual program.

Barth announced that this year 12 AAF students will graduate with more than a year’s worth of college credits.

“That year of college credit could save their families $20,000 if they attended an Arizona university,” she said.

EAC-Payson board member Jan Brocker said “Aspire Arizona, to us, is one of the most incredible opportunities that has been created since we’ve been here.”

Barth noted that the Arizona Community Foundation and the Holbrook Pyle Foundation have also become major donors. The MHA Foundation funds cover all of AAF’s overhead costs, with means every dime donated to Aspire Arizona goes straight to offset the students’ tuition costs. Donations have made it possible this year for AAF to cover up to three classes per semester per student.

Donors enjoyed the chance to mingle with the students they helped.

Kathy Paczkowski commented, “The students we sat with were outstanding and give me optimism about the future of our country.”

Financial adviser Micah Crabdree — a graduate of Payson High School and Northern Arizona University — spoke at the breakfast. He told the students, “You are at an extreme advantage that most could only dream about — you are going to enter college with credits under your belt. That would have saved me so much time, frustration and money.”

Perhaps more importantly, the program has helped many students dream of college. About half of Payson students come from low-income families. Many of their parents didn’t go to college, which remains the single biggest predictor in college attendance.

“I did not have people come in and talk to me like you have,” Crabdree said.

Working to achieve their dreams and get an education will help them discover and build on their key strengths, he said.

“You will stand out for those and be happy working in the realm of your strengths. My core strengths play perfectly in my role as a business owner but more specifically as a financial adviser. So go out there, discover who you are and what you are made of and go make the life you want for yourself.”

And when those donors get old — maybe Dr. Stephanie Felix can help.

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