College Made Possible With LGBT Scholarships; How These Theatre Artists Defied the Odds

The Los Angeles-based scholarship program The Point Foundation helps members of the LGBTQ community pay for college–and get the emotional support they need to thrive there.

Emily Ptak-Pressman
Emily Ptak-Pressman

Growing up gay in Madison, WI, was a challenge for Emily Ptak-Pressman, despite a loving, supportive home life with two lesbian moms.

"Hearing messages at school, on TV and from politicians that there is something wrong with me and the people I love was hard on my self-esteem," she said. “I faced a lot of marginalization and discrimination.”

She knew that the pathway to a career probably lay through university doors, but the idea of starting over with a whole new group of strangers seemed daunting—until she heard about the Los Angeles-based Point Foundation and applied to become a Point Scholar.

Specially designed to serve the needs of college-age members of the LGBTQ community, the Point Foundation was created in 2001 by Bruce Lindstrom, Carl Strickland and John Pence, according to Jorge Valencia, executive director and CEO of PF. “They were responding to their own personal experience with how difficult it can be coming out, often losing the support of families and communities, and then having the burden of trying to do well in school and work in order to seek a higher degree.”

More than 2,100 applicants compete for the 20 or so new PF scholarships each year, Valencia said. The amount of Point’s annual scholarship support, which includes direct financial and programmatic assistance, averages $25,000 per scholar each year. If donations and sponsorships increase, the foundation hopes to increase the number of students served. In its decade of existence the Point Foundation has granted 184 scholarships, most of them covering multiple years in college. This fall, the foundation will be helping a total of 80 students at various colleges and universities.

“The worst scenario is when these kids are thrown out of the house by their parents, or get rejected by their congregations and other religious institutions,” Valencia said.

Applicants are required to demonstrate academic excellence, with a GPA of 3.3 or higher. Next, Point Foundation looks at the applicant’s leadership experience throughout their schools and communities, not just in the LGBTQ community.

Ptak-Pressman said, “The Point Foundation has helped me be successful in my studies and organizing at Sarah Lawrence College. It has empowered me to be a leader, given me a support network, and allowed me to go to school without incurring stifling student debts. The mentorship program has been especially helpful. My mentor, Jonathan Walker, is always there if I need advice about school or activism, or just need to get off campus and chat over coffee with someone who cares.”

Maggie Keenan-Bolger

Another PF Scholar is Maggie Keenan-Bolger, part of the talented family that also produced Broadway regulars Celia ( The Glass Menagerie) and Andrew ( Newsies). “I was the only out queer kid in my Detroit high school growing up,” she said. “While I was (thankfully) never physically threatened, I dealt with a lot of smaller-scale confrontation on a daily basis. Many of my peers viewed my sexuality as a sin and frequently used homophobic slurs. At my 9th grade confirmation, I had to repeat out loud to my pastor that I would not engage in homosexual activities; and at a school-wide assembly in 10th grade, a speaker suggested that anyone who believed that homosexuality was not a sin should walk out of the gym immediately. Even if I had been in a completely supportive environment, there are so many subtle things young queer people face growing up that result in isolation, shame and fear.”

Keenan-Bolger applied for a PF scholarship in 2008. “I had no idea how much Point would positively affect my life,” she said. “While I will forever be grateful to what Point offered me financially, the true impact has been emotional. When I showed up in California for the Point semi-finalist interview, the number of successful LGBTQIA adults who were there overwhelmed me. Growing up in the theatre I clearly knew some LGBTQIA adults, but they were certainly in a minority and many were gay, cis-gender men. Walking into a room with hundreds of engaged, successful LGBTQIA people of all genders, I was faced with the reality that I could aspire to or achieve anything, not merely in spite of my sexuality, but because of my sexuality.” Keenan-Bolger was lucky enough to be a two-time Point Foundation scholar. Her first degree with Point was an MA in Applied Theatre from CUNY. Her second degree was an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College where she said she focused on “the intersections of devised theatre, queer, feminist, gender theory and theatre as a tool for building community.”

Garrett Zuercher

Garrett Zuercher was in the inaugural class of Point Scholars back in 2002. He had the unusual challenge of being deaf as well as gay. Another Wisconsin native, Zuercher said, “I was often told to be more masculine. ‘Be a man. Don't do this, do that.’ Still, I believe the fact that I was deaf fortunately deflected a great deal of bullying and discrimination I most likely would have otherwise encountered because my being deaf was my first and main identity. As a teenager, though, I did hear things from my family that led me to believe that I could not come out and be accepted, which pushed me further back into the closet.”

He was already at college when he heard about Point. “As the first and only deaf student at Marquette, the theatre department – while extremely welcoming - didn’t quite know what to do with me. Even though I had been cast in several productions, I was mostly in the background, which – as you can probably imagine – frustrated me to no end. I wanted to show them who I was and what I could do but – with two majors and a job – I had no time. When I received the support of the Point, however, I was able to quit my job and take several months instead to write, produce and direct a play called Quid Pro Quo about the cultural differences between the deaf and hearing worlds. Within the following year, my little play earned me two national playwriting awards and went on to perform in DC at the Kennedy Center. Quid Pro Quo helped kick-start my career as a theatre artist, and the Point Foundation helped me make it happen.”

Now graduated and working in New York, Zuercher has a new play, Blind Man’s Bluff, getting a reading this fall. “It’s a portrayal of what it’s like to be a deaf and gay man in New York City. The more I work on it, the more I realize how many parallels there are between the two worlds.”

He said, “I would encourage any and all students to apply for this remarkable foundation. It has opened so many doors for me and I am eternally indebted to them for what they have given me.”

To apply for a Point Foundation scholarship, visit the Pointfoundnation.org website and click on the “apply” tab.