Firebird Retention Grant Recipient: Heather Alysia McNeil

Scholar speaking at podium

Despite cancer, domestic violence, divorce, a layoff and recent furlough, Heather Alysia McNeil is determined to reach her dream of becoming an orthomolecular psychiatrist with the help of the University of the District of Columbia. The UDC campus has become a haven and a place of new beginnings for the mother of six and grandmother of 10. 

McNeil came to UDC in 2016 and never looked back at her past struggles.  However, recently she did find herself running out of financial aid. As a Maryland resident, she didn’t qualify for many District programs and was furloughed from her paid internship with the Department of Energy & Environment during the government shutdown. She is keeping a positive attitude while awaiting a call back to work.  

With the help of encouraging professors who didn’t want to see her drop out, McNeil was offered the Firebird Retention Grant by the UDC Foundation which has helped her to maintain her 3.25 grade point average and remain enrolled in classes.

“The grant was a Godsend,” said McNeil, who is a junior with dual majors in psychology and biology. “It kept me from being dismissed from all of my classes. My professors have impacted my life greatly. They strive to make sure we matriculate well above and beyond what is required. They open our minds not just in the classroom, but they show a genuine concern about us almost like family.” 

At the age of 48, she is grabbing her new opportunities with all the gusto she can. McNeil has her sights set on medical school after UDC professors exposed her to more career options for using her double major.

“I will do everything possible to make sure I stay in school and walk across that stage next year.”  

The University of the District of Columbia offers the Firebird Retention Grant to students each semester to help cover modest financial shortfalls affecting the students’ ability to pay tuition and fees, which prevents them from dropping out. 

This year, the University of the District of Columbia provided the Office of Student Development and Success $20,000 for Firebird Retention Grant awards. Ten awards were given out in Fall 2018 and 14 were distributed in Spring 2019.   

McNeil’s enthusiasm and optimism are contagious. Originally from Hershey, Pa, she attended the Milton Hershey boarding school, after losing her mother to sickle cell anemia. She attended Cheyney University for a short time before starting her family.  After a divorce in 2012, she worked her way up to becoming an assistant to a wealth management banker. In 2015, she lost her job and home after the company relocated to Florida. UDC allowed her to get her life back on track. 

McNeil said all the struggles in her life have prepared her for following her current path to medical school and achieving her dreams.   

“I tell people all the time that life still hits hard, but it’s all about your attitude,” she said. “I believe if your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.”