The Hixson program: a ‘home away from home’ that changes lives


Photo: Jordan Maurice/Iowa State

The Hixson-Lied Student Success Center allows for Iowa State student athletes to meet with mental health advisers. 

Lindsey Settle

Awarding over $1 million in half-tuition grants each year, the Hixson Program has created a community within Iowa State to go beyond the usual financial aid of an ordinary scholarship.

Every year, selected high school seniors in the state of Iowa who have overcome significant obstacles and plan to attend Iowa State University, are awarded a half tuition grant of more than $16,000. The grant amount spans over eight semesters and fluctuates with changes in tuition cost. The Hixson Program takes in Hixson scholars from their very first week at Iowa State and introduces them to the Hixson Program resources available to them.

One hundred Hixson scholars are chosen every year, ideally choosing one award recipient from each of the 99 Iowa counties.

Christina Hixson, a recognized philanthropist, founded the program and started granting the award in 1995. Her intent with the program was to seek and reward individuals looking to earn a college degree. Since its initiation, around 1,600 Iowa State graduates have been Hixson scholars.

Hixson has been quoted on the Hixson Opportunity Awards website saying that her purpose for creating the program was because “for many of the great, great successes of the world, the background they came from was their great challenge. I’m trying to find those people. Those who may not have the highest grade point or a perfect family background, but who can be successful. These are the ones who will lend the helping hands in the future.”

Hixson wasn’t able to attend college herself. At 91, she has done her best to meet Hixson scholars and learn more about them.

“For her it’s not just about knowing the name but connecting with them in other ways as well,” said program director Allison Severson.

There are approximately 375 Hixson scholars currently enrolled at Iowa State. Each year over $1 million is given to the chosen 100 Hixson scholars.

A home away from home

Within the Hixson Program are various courses and activities including the Hixson Seminar, University Studies 101, which all Hixson scholars take their first year. However, after the seminar is complete, scholars have the choice whether to become more involved in the Hixson Program or not.

“It’s not just money. It’s also support when they get here,” Severson said. 

Joining the Hixson Student Board or becoming a peer mentor are two options for Hixson scholars to further their involvement in the program and give back to their community. Many Hixson scholars choose to do so.

“One big aspect of Hixson is the community that we build with our students so that they feel like they have a second home within Iowa State,”  said Assistant Director of the Hixson Program Nicole Bartolozzi.

Leah Brooke, a senior in dietetics and a 2017 peer mentor, said coming to Iowa State from a small town with the support of the Hixson community made her feel not quite so lost. Brooke said that the Hixson program is like a “home away from home.” 

Overcoming obstacles

Lecturer in the food sciences and nutrition department and 2003 Hixson scholar, Kate Gilbert’s experience reflects the common background of Hixson Scholars in overcoming a major obstacle in her life.

Gilbert was involved in a truck and trailer accident where she nearly lost her brother.

“Something wonderful came out of something that was not,” said Gilbert.

Gilbert has fond memories of what the program gave to her and the sense of community she felt once she arrived.

Gilbert said that the Hixson scholars “all came from different backgrounds but felt like we had something innately in common.”

Peer Mentorship

Hardship led these students to Iowa State, but the decision of the program’s peer mentors to guide the incoming scholars, going through the same trials they once faced, sparked a chain reaction in the lives of the Hixson scholars.

For the 17 members who comprised the 2017 Hixson peer mentor roster, their goal was to provide support to the next wave of incoming Hixson scholars.

From the large group of 100 Hixson scholars who receive the Hixson Opportunity Award each year, smaller mentor groups of 10-12 people are formed and led by pairs of peer mentors. The small groups meet every week and become tight-knit. Hixson scholars relate to one another more than just their common Iowa upbringing and peer mentors recognize that.

“We’re from different backgrounds no matter where we’re from in Iowa… but we all have that same idea that we went through something pretty hard in our life and we have this mentality that we’re going to overcome this…and I think what’s what Christina Hixson wanted this award for,” said Major Postma, junior in marketing and 2017 peer mentor. 

The unpaid position requires a big time commitment, but Postma said it’s worth it. His peer mentors helped him push through his reluctance to become involved and he is very grateful that they did. After having such an impactful experience with his peer mentors, Postma wanted to give that to new Hixson scholars.

“Christina and everybody at the Hixson Scholarship, they saw something in me. They believed in me that I could do something with my life, and this is my way of trying to give back and help the next set of students open up and break down their own barriers,” Postma said.

Tate Blankespoor, a freshman studying biology, was mentored by Postma and is currently in training to become a peer mentor. Tate was inspired by Postma to become a peer mentor.

Blankespoor said he’d be happy “if [he] could be a positive influence on them that maybe they’ve never had before.”