A teenage girl and boy paint some wood from a crouched position
Teens from Muncie paint on the grounds of Minnetrista Cultural Center as part job skills taught through the nonprofit TeenWorks, led by alumnus Nick Duvall. As a first-generation college student, Duvall says his Ball State education inspired him to help others find their dreams.

Nick Duvall can take the heat.

It’s a stifling 90 degrees outside The Caffeinery, a hip café in downtown Muncie, and he’s smiling for photographs in a blue blazer and jeans.

Duvall is the 36-year-old CEO of TeenWorks, a nonprofit that teaches underserved youth in Indianapolis and Muncie professional development skills. He graduated from Ball State in 2005 with a bachelor’s in criminal justice and in 2014 with a master’s in public administration.

Back inside the café, Duvall sips iced coffee and explains why the heat is no big deal. His tolerance is the result of both acclimation and a perspective that comes from hard times.

It’s no big deal, because Duvall joined a landscaping crew at 14 and labored under the hot sun.

It’s no big deal, because the reason Duvall joined the crew was to help pay bills.

It’s no big deal, because the reason the family needed help was that Duvall’s father, Terry, had terminal cancer.

Duvall had no choice but to get tough and grow up fast.

“One-hundred degrees outside laying bricks, that teaches you character,” he said.

Years later, the young executive sees how — difficult as it was — his express ticket into adulthood positively shaped his life. Shouldering that much responsibility at such a young age prepared him for the sink-or-swim demands of the work environment, and it’s no wonder he’s been successful.

Now, Duvall wants to make sure that today’s youth have the same early opportunities for growth that he did, albeit without all the hardship that came with it.

“My passion project is kids,” he said. “We empower them to excel in their community, in college, and in their careers.”

A sense of purpose

Duvall’s story of fighting through hardship, finding success, and giving back is common among Ball State alumni and students.

The University has a reputation for empowering upward mobility. It excels at serving populations that traditionally were not afforded the opportunity to attend college. Consider these statistics:

  • More than 30% of Ball State students are first-generation students such as Duvall.
  • 80% of all students qualify for financial aid.
  • More than 50% of students who receive financial aid are Pell Grant students, who have exceptional financial need.
A graphic shows several statistics about first generation college students

“Our students don’t have a sense of entitlement” President Geoffrey S. Mearns said. “They have a sense of purpose.”

Furthermore, 13% of students attend Ball State on a state-funded 21st Century Scholarship. Compare that to Purdue University, West Lafayette, 6%, and Indiana University, Bloomington, 8%.

Celebrating 30 years in 2020, 21st Century Scholars offers four years of paid tuition to income-eligible Hoosiers. More than 36,000 people have earned a degree with the program.

Making higher education more affordable for everyone is a solid investment in the state’s health and success. Part of the reason is that so many people who receive financial aid commit to lives of service, either professionally like Duvall or through volunteer work.

Nick Duvall heeds his father’s words, grows up to help underserved youth

A portrait of a young man
Nick Duvall

On especially hot days landscaping, Nick Duvall heeded the words of his dad, Terry: “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.”

Like his son, Terry was as tough as he was kindhearted. He outlasted cancer for six years before passing away.

Nick was 20 at the time, a sophomore in college, attending with financial help from a Ball State scholarship. As he grieved, Duvall questioned whether he should continue at Ball State or drop out and enter the workforce full time to support his mom and two younger sisters, then 15 and 13 years old.

Again, he heeded the words of his father.

“No matter what, you have to finish college,” he said.

Terry Duvall knew how difficult it could be to get by on only a high school diploma. He wanted to change the narrative for his kids, and he felt higher education was the key.

Eventually, all of the Duvall children earned not only bachelor’s degrees but also master’s degrees.

“Ball State allowed me to find myself,” Duvall said. “This is really what I’m called to do — to help people in tough situations and empower those people to move forward.”

Ball State allowed me to find myself. This is what I’m called to do: to help people in tough situations and empower them to move forward. 

Nick Duvall

Brandi Lambertson’s extraordinary comeback leads her to advise other students

A portrait of a young woman
Brandi Lambertson

Brandi Lambertson  is a perfect example of Ball State students’ strong sense of purpose.

She began her education at Ivy Tech Community College in 2011. Having grown up poor and with little family support, Brandi was homeless for much of her freshman year. She couch-surfed and slept in her car, often in an Ivy Tech parking lot while a kindhearted security officer pretended not to notice.

Then, she suffered a miscarriage. Toward the end of her second semester, her ex-boyfriend committed suicide.

Emotionally distraught, Brandi quit attending classes. Her GPA dropped to 0.57. When she re-enrolled at Ivy Tech in 2015, her GPA was so low she had to file an appeal for readmission.

After two years and countless hours spent in tutoring and retaking courses, Brandi graduated with a 3.4 GPA and an associate’s degree in business administration. Because of her unprecedented comeback, Ivy Tech named her a “Dean’s Most Outstanding Student.”

Brandi then attended Ball State with help from the 21st Century Scholars program, graduating this Spring with an entrepreneurial management degree. She also continues to work as an adviser to freshman in 21st Century Scholars. Normally, a graduate student would hold the position. But the University felt she was uniquely qualified because of her life experiences.

As an adviser, Brandi connects students with tutors and disability services. She has helped students who have experienced deaths in their families, illness, and a sense of being overwhelmed. But, most of all, she offers encouragement. 

“The students connect to someone they can relate to,” she said. “Somebody who has struggled, and somebody who has been there.”

Jonathan Isbill’s personal experiences inspire him to teach educators how to prepare healthy meals

A portrait of a young man
Jonathan Isbill

In 2012, when Jonathan Isbill  was a sophomore at Hauser High School in Hope, his mom, Janice, lost her job. She had been a career counselor, and the state eliminated funding for her position.

Until then, Janice had been able to control the symptoms of her Crohn’s disease. But the stress of being unemployed and raising two children by herself triggered a flare-up.

“When it’s at its worst, it’s just debilitating,” Jonathan said.

Seeing his mom suffer ignited a passion that continues to this day. He quit the basketball team and began staying after school to research Crohn’s in an out-of-the-way computer lab, alone.

“The janitor would close up shop, and I would still be in there cranking away,” Jonathan recalled.

Jonathan researched recipes that would ease his mother’s symptoms. He convinced her to eliminate junk food, limit dairy, and accept other dietary changes. Slowly, Janice’s health improved.

After high school, Jonathan attended Ball State. Like Lambertson, he did so with support from 21st Century Scholars. As an undergrad, he studied nutrition and dietetics, graduating with honors in 2018. In December 2019, Jonathan graduated with a master’s degree from Ball State in the same area.

“The close relationship between students and faculty at Ball State was such a foundational piece to my success,” he said.

Currently, Jonathan works for the Whole Kids Foundation through a partnership with the Indiana State Department of Health. He travels to schools throughout Indiana teaching educators how to prepare healthy meals. Teachers can then pass that knowledge along to their students.

“I really wanted to change the world with health and nutrition, and to give back for the opportunities I’ve been given,” he said.

Anyea Gooch’s mother drives her to join student and volunteer organizations

A portrait of a young woman
Anyea Gooch

Anyea Gooch’s mother, Nadine, raised four children by herself on a custodian’s salary.

She encouraged her children to apply for as many scholarships and college prep programs as possible.

A graduate of Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis, Anyea barely remembers signing up for 21st Century Scholars. She does, however, remember the overwhelming feeling when she opened her first bill from Vincennes University as a freshman.

“How am I going to do this?” she thought.

Then, she checked her bill through the Vincennes digital portal. The online version showed her scholarships applied, including one from 21st Century Scholars to cover all of her tuition. A sense of relief and gratitude swept over her.

Anyea studied theatre for two years at Vincennes before transferring to Ball State to major in advertising and minor in technical theatre. She graduated in 2018.

At Ball State, Anyea excelled, immersing herself in numerous activities and service roles, from Voice of Triumph Gospel Choir to the Black Student Association and volunteering across the Muncie community.

She has also served as a transfer student ambassador in the Office of Retention and Graduation and worked off campus at the Boys & Girls Club of Muncie and at Second Harvest Food Bank.

“What didn’t I do?” she joked. “I found that my biggest support system at Ball State was being involved on campus, getting into organizations, and meeting new people.”

She is now the program director for after-school care at Eliza A. Blaker Elementary School in Indianapolis, where she develops curriculum for students in pre-K through sixth grade and oversees five staff members.

One of the most valuable lessons Anyea says she has learned in her life so far: “Dreams are achieved in sleep. Goals are achieved through hard work.”