A Gift of Hope

Couple's gift to El Centro supports first-generation Latino/a students.

By Trevor Anderson '04

John and Kelly Swift, center, have made a gift to the South Carolina Centro Latino that will benefit first-generation Latino/a students, such as those in USC Upstate's Avanzando Through College program.
John and Kelly Swift know intimately the challenges that first-generation students encounter.

The couple, who met in an accounting class during the second semester of their senior year at the University of South Carolina, faced many obstacles as they navigated their way through college.

Their desire to make that journey a little easier for others led them to make a $50,000 gift to USC Upstate to fund endowed student scholarships and support the university’s South Carolina Centro Latino, known as El Centro. The scholarships are anticipated to be available to students in the fall of 2023.

Araceli Hernandez-Laroche, director of El Centro and professor of modern languages at USC Upstate, said the gift will give hope, particularly to first-generation students and their families.

“Words cannot express our gratitude for John and Kelly,” said Hernandez-Laroche, the first tenured Mexican-American professor in USC Upstate’s history and the university’s first Hispanic faculty member to be promoted to the rank of full professor. “This gift is an investment in our future and will enable us to continue to highlight our Latino/a students, faculty, and staff.”

After graduating from college, the Swifts both became certified public accountants. They settled in Greenville, where they had successful business careers, raised their family, and were actively involved in civic and community outreach.

“It became important to us in the next phase of life to find some way to impact lives,” John Swift said. “We both put ourselves through college. We decided we wanted to find a way that we could help kids who want to pursue higher education.”

The couple began mentoring students. What they discovered led them to research and explore other ways that they could give back. They also began working with Adela Mendoza, executive director of the Hispanic Alliance of South Carolina.

“In working with kids from Latino/a or Hispanic backgrounds, we found that about 90 percent of them were first-gen students,” John Swift said. “We found that ‘Dreamers,’ even though they live in-state, are considered out-of-state students and could not take advantage of financial aid and other scholarships.”

Adds Kelly Swift, “We found that in many cases they weren’t being advised effectively in high school. They have the capacity and the capability to go to college, they just need to be shown the way.”

The Swifts found the retention of first-gen Latino/a or Hispanic college students to be a nationwide challenge. They began investigating why.

“Loans and scholarships may not be the solution for every student,” John Swift said. “They may be facing pressure from their families or communities. There may be language barriers, social challenges, or just a lack of access to resources … We wanted to connect the dots to help these kids with college, whatever that big picture looks like.”

A few months ago, the Swifts attended a Student Dreamers Alliance meeting in Greenville, where they were introduced to USC Upstate student Emily Martinez-Villalobos. They explained their desire to help, and Martinez-Villalobos put the couple in touch with Hernandez-Laroche.

“(Emily) asked us if we had heard of El Centro,” John Swift said. “She connected us with Araceli. We had lunch and everything just grew from there.”

“We’ve managed the whole process of getting to college, graduating from college, and then pursuing a career,” he added. “We’ve really been drawn to first-gen Latino/a or Hispanic students and we’re trying to give back with our time, our talents, and our funds to help other folks navigate that same process. We’re excited about the work being done at USC Upstate.”

“It really touches our hearts when we get to sit down with a student and hear their story or listen to their family history,” Kelly Swift said. “We could not deny that we knew we were called to share our resources.”

The Swifts currently reside in Prosperity. They have three children and three grandchildren, with a fourth expected.