Julene Ventura '23 will dedicate her life to helping marginalized communities. She's well on her way, thanks to a little help from a Siena benefactor that left her "crying tears of joy, honestly." 

This fall, Julene will pursue her MSW at the University at Albany with advanced standing, meaning she can start and finish her degree in 12 months. Still, that's one full year's worth of rent, electricity, transportation, and other costs before she earns a professional paycheck. Julene assumed she would somehow find a way, but the stress and anxiety were deepening by the day – until she got the news this week. Julene is the 2023 recipient of the Lonnstrom Higher Education Opportunity Program Excellence Award.

"I'm so grateful the Lonnstroms are willing to provide these opportunities. It's the most thoughtful thing they could do. I'm just beyond grateful."

The award was established in 2014 by Doug Lonnstrom ’66, Ph.D., retired professor of quantitative business analysis, and his wife, Cris, to support HEOP students in pursuing their careers and goals after graduation. The $5,000 award may be put toward transportation, moving, living expenses, tuition and book costs. Julene is the 10th recipient of the award, and thanks to an endowment created by the Lonnstroms this year, the award will be bestowed annually in perpetuity.

"HEOP is about breaking down the barriers so students can succeed and reach their goals," said Yasmin Fisher '10, director of HEOP (above, left). "The Lonnstrom award has been instrumental in securing that students' goals are met post graduation. We are extremely grateful."

Julene's goals were shaped by her mom, who immigrated from Mexico as a teenager with, as Julene put it, "basically nothing." Julene and her two sisters, including Sadie Ventura '19, a Siena HEOP graduate, were raised by their single mother.

"Watching her be so resilient, it inspired me. I want to help communities that are vulnerable to environmental racism and poverty. I want to make a difference for people who aren't given a voice in today's world." 

The Lonnstrom Award will be a helpful boost at the start of that journey. 

Doug Lonnstrom explains why he and Cris (right, with Julene) started the award in 2014:

"Over the years I have had many outstanding HEOP students in my statistics classes. They often had perfect attendance, a strong work ethic and participated in class discussions. Many were the first in their family to attend college, they were under a lot of pressure and they performed well. I was proud of them.

About 10 years ago, I was made aware of an outstanding student who had a wonderful job offer in Washington, DC.  He had no car, no money for transportation or rent for an apartment. HEOP students get good support while at Siena but after that they are on their own. So my wife and I decided to help them get started on their professional career. We set up a $5,000 award to cover their expenses to get started in life.  It was so successful we continued to do this every year for an outstanding student. We made a gift to set up an endowment for this award so HEOP can count on it forever." 

Layvon Washington '14, referenced above, has worked as a senior project manager for the National Science Foundation and is currently a Ph.D. researcher at the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center.