April 30, 2014 at 2:20 pm EDT | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Paying it forward
Point Foundation, gay news, Washington Blade

Former Point scholar Harjant Gill with Nicole Sterling, a current scholar he mentors. She’s a student at Maryland’s Towson University, where Gill teaches anthropology. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Point Foundation: the National LGBTQ Scholarship Fund

Washington Cornerstone Event

May 8

6:30-8:30 p.m.

Room & Board

1840 14th St., N.W.

General admission: $75


Nicole Sterling’s education at Towson University got off to a rough start.

Last fall as she began her freshman year, the 19-year-old Laurel, Md., resident found herself paired with what she calls a “passive-aggressive” roommate who locked her out of their shared room and cyber-bullied her.

The next roommate also proved troublesome.

“My first year was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” she said. “It took a big toll.”

Despite a campus environment that discourages roommate changes, Sterling had some supporters in her camp. As a Point Scholar, one of 78 undergraduate and graduate students receiving aid from the Point Foundation, an organization that helps LGBT students “achieve their full academic and leadership potential,” she had a mentor, Harjant Gill, an anthropology professor and former Point Scholar himself, to help.

They text regularly and meet two or three times a month to discuss issues Sterling may be having. It’s not always big existential questions about education and life goals — sometimes they talk about practical, everyday things.

Sterling, who’s bi, says it’s been a huge help.

“He’s really gone out of his way to be a support for me,” says the communications major, who eventually hopes to start a non-profit organization to help countries such as Uganda and Rwanda that are recovering from genocide. “He was just there right from the beginning helping me with anything I needed. We were just talking today, working on finding an apartment for me next year. He helped me with the roommate situations and also looking for a summer internship.”

Gill, who finished his Ph.D. in anthropology and started at Towson in 2011, knows first-hand what it’s like to have a mentor. During his Point years, he says his mentor, Jeff Pluth (who, like Gill, is gay), was a great help.

One sometimes thinks of high academic achievers as being almost supernaturally adept at handling everyday tedium, but Gill, also a documentary filmmaker, says that wasn’t the case for him.

“There were many challenges and moments of uncertainty when I just wanted to give up everything and I thought to myself, ‘Why am I even doing this,’” says the 32-year-old Chandigarh, India native who moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 14. “He was always there to sort of talk me down off the ledge, so to speak. He always supported me and listened and tried to get me to see the bigger picture. That emotional support was really helpful. There were many times when he was my anchor in a time of chaos.”

Pluth, who lived in Washington at the time he started mentoring Gill but has since moved to Palm Springs, Calif., says he’s delighted to see Gill now mentoring another Point Scholar. Pluth had met Jorge Valencia, Point’s executive director, in Chicago at a time when Pluth was interested in supporting a non-profit outside of his professional work managing, at that time, a touring Cirque de Soleil production.

Pluth, who has a bachelor’s degree, says he initially felt unqualified to tutor a Point Scholar pursuing a Ph.D. but soon found tutoring Gill a gratifying experience.

“I always told him I expected him later to give something back,” says Pluth, 49. “He would always say, ‘Yes, I plan to,’ but until you actually see it in action, you never fully know. …. When I saw that he had become a mentor himself, it was just one of those moments when you just quietly kind of smile to yourself and say, ‘Right on. Somebody got it.’ The timing of this for me is actually quite poignant because we don’t always know or get to see how our actions or words have had an influence on someone.”

Valencia, in San Francisco last weekend to help select this year’s batch of 21-23 young people who will be named Point Scholars out of a group of 36 finalists (nearly 5,000 at least started the lengthy application process), says this kind of “paying it forward” mentality is “exactly one of the tenets the organization was founded on.”

He says of the 167 Point alumni who’ve completed their educations since Point started in 2001, close to 70 percent have stayed involved in some capacity, be it mentoring another scholar, giving money, serving on national or regional Point boards and more.

The organization has many giving opportunities for those who wish to support it. On Thursday, the group will host its annual Washington Cornerstone event at Room & Board. In June, this year’s scholars will be announced. The organization, which has a $3.7 million annual operating budget and works with a $5.1 million endowment, has 16 full-time staff members, most of whom are based in Los Angeles. The endowment is mostly untapped to ensure current scholars will have their education covered in a cataclysmic event. Point uses its fundraising efforts to support the bulk of its yearly expenses. The average scholar receives about $9,700 per year in monetary support, but more than double that when programmatic and mentoring support is factored in, Valencia says.

But with academia not typically thought of as a hotbed of homophobia and perhaps especially not for academically successful students who have proven they have ambition and tenacity by merely getting into the program, how essential is Point’s work?

Sterling, who came out as a high school freshman and helped secure a GSA (gay/straight alliance) of the year award from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) for the one she was president of in her high school, says the support has been invaluable.

“Freshman year is always hard as you adjust to new surroundings,” she says. “With everything that’s been going on, it’s been so nice not to have to worry about money on the side or have to get a job my first year. … Without Point, it wouldn’t have been an option for me to go to college or if I had, it would have been with a huge amount of debt.”

Gill agrees.

“I certainly wouldn’t have been able to continue with my graduate studies without Point Foundation,” he says. “The whole Point family, this whole network of scholars and staff are all rooting for you. They’re basically saying, ‘We believe in you and we trust you. We’re counting on you and we’re investing in you and we want you to succeed. We believe in what you’re trying to do.’ That was so important for me, especially when I had rough moments. … There’s no way I would have been able to navigate this path on my own.”

Valencia says the process of vetting these overachievers each year in San Francisco is amazing.

“I really wish I could sneak you in so you could see this,” he says. “I’ve seen all of this year’s finalists and they’re just amazing. … It really gives you a sense of the quality of our young people and where they want to take this country and society.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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