Q&A with David Rust

By Brenda Alesii

Say Yes Buffalo CEO and founding executive director discusses how the program works, its recently expansion in East Buffalo and how it has helped nearly 5,000 local students so far

What do you think is the correct answer to this question:

Should barriers to educational and economic attainment, workforce participation, and economic mobility for students in public and charter schools in Buffalo be removed? 

The obvious answer? Say Yes! 

Say Yes Buffalo is much more than just an answer to an obvious need for kids who need support to further their education through the use of locally funded tuition scholarships.

With a strong focus on racial equity and inclusion, Say Yes Buffalo’s mission is to provide a post-secondary tuition promise for all eligible charter and public school students in the city. This education-based initiative is a multipronged partnership involving the Buffalo Public School District, parents, government representatives, as well as business and philanthropic organizations, all in an effort to offer year-round support to students throughout their K-12 years and beyond. 

In Good Health—Western New York Health Newspaper recently spoke with Say Yes Buffalo CEO and founding Executive Director David Rust, a St. Bonaventure alumnus, who recently announced the opening of a new office in the heart of the Cold Spring business corridor on Jefferson Avenue.

Q. What are the minimum application requirements for students to achieve the dream of post-secondary education?

A. Our minimum requirements: students must live in Buffalo, attend eligible charter or public schools from grades 9 through 12, and apply for financial aid programs — TAP and Pell grants. In addition, students must enroll in our program within one year of graduation. 

Q. Since the inception of Say Yes Buffalo some 10 years ago, how many students made it to college and what are some of the types of programs offered?

A. We have well over 2,000 students who have benefited from our program, with another 2,400 in the higher education pipeline. A number of disciplines are offered: certificates, two-year degrees, or four-year degrees. Along with tremendous public support, we have a high level of participation in our nationally renowned project. I expect growth to continue from year to year.

Q. With so many colleges and universities located in this region, do a lot of students stay local?

A. There are 21 colleges in our area, 85-90% end up staying local, attending schools we’re all familiar with — UB, Buffalo State, SUNY Erie, Villa Maria, Medaille, etc. Some of our students attend schools outside of Western New York, including Ivy League institutions.

Q. New York State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes secured a $1 million capital grant to cover construction costs of your new location. She noted that race, zip code, income and other socioeconomic factors should not hinder furthering one’s education. Why was opening on Jefferson and Southampton in East Buffalo significant?

A. This simply would not have been possible without the investment and vision of Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes. Thanks to her leadership, this beautiful office space will serve the entire city for years to come. Our mission is centered on investing in undervalued resources to make our community stronger, so opening up in a place that has seen so much disinvestment is meaningful for our entire team. We also wanted to invest in a neighborhood that represents the individuals we serve. That sentiment is more important than ever in light of the devastation following the massacre at Tops on May 14. 

Q. How is Say Yes Buffalo funded?

A. We’ve had a number of angel investors working to build our scholarship endowment, largely supported by foundations, individuals, businesses, and the state who believe in our work. These generous contributors recognize that a well-educated populace with access to good jobs will improve the Buffalo Niagara area and help the region thrive. 

Our programs are primarily funded by the Buffalo Public Schools, Erie County, the City of Buffalo, Medicaid and foundations (RCWJF, CFGB, JROF, Gates, HFWCNY, Cullen), and many others. These generous partners invest in public school-based supports, preparing students to access the scholarship upon graduation.

Q. With such a successful model, do you get approached by people in other cities who may want to use Say Yes Buffalo as a model for their community?

A. Yes, regularly, but Buffalo is our only focus.