Portrait of Anir Ahant
At two high-profile events in Washington, D.C., celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Pell Grant program, Virginia Commonwealth University grad and Pell Grant recipient Anir Ahant will share his story and explain how the need-based grant program set him up for success at VCU and beyond. (Photo by Isaiah Mamo, University Marketing)

As part of the Pell Grant’s 50th anniversary, a VCU grad is sharing his story with federal policymakers

Anir Ahant, who graduated in May, will co-moderate a reception hosted by national higher education organizations and will speak at a congressional briefing at the U.S. Capitol.

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This week will be the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which established the Pell Grant program that has helped more than 80 million U.S. students access higher education and is the cornerstone of federal financial aid.

At two high-profile events in Washington, D.C., celebrating the anniversary, Virginia Commonwealth University grad and Pell Grant recipient Anir Ahant will be sharing his story and explaining how the need-based grant program set him up for success at VCU and beyond.

“Getting to college in the first place was very difficult for me. I struggled throughout high school because I had a lot of financial insecurity, food insecurity, all sorts of stuff,” said Ahant, who graduated in May from the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “So getting into college was a huge deal for me. The Pell Grant made it so I didn’t have to take out excessive loans. It made my life easier and helped make college a reality.”

Ahant will serve as co-moderator of a reception Thursday with bipartisan supporters of the Pell Grant program including James Kvaal, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education, and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, as well as recorded remarks by Senators Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut. The reception will be hosted by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the American Council on Education, the Institute for College Access & Success and other higher education organizations.

Additionally, Ahant will take part in a congressional briefing organized by the Institute for College Access & Success on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol, moderated by Olivia Sanchez of The Hechinger Report and featuring remarks by Reed and Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education and deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs at the U.S. Department of Education.

Following the briefing, Ahant and Carly Katz, senior director of federal relations at VCU, will meet with Rep. A. Donald McEachin and staff for Rep. Rob Wittman and Sen. Mark Warner to talk about the importance of the Pell program.

Ahant plans to explain how the program helped enable him to pursue his interests not only in medicine and research at VCU, but also in film and student advocacy.

“The Pell Grant lets students explore possibilities,” he said. “It’s honestly how I think school should be. It gives students more freedom to explore what opportunities are out there, what they're good at and how they can learn. Because there aren’t any strings attached. If you’re eligible, you get in.”

VCU participates in several state and federal grant programs, including the Pell Grant. In fall 2021, nearly one-third of all enrolled VCU undergraduates were Pell recipients. Among the enrolled Pell recipients, more than half (53.2%) were underrepresented minority students. VCU awards the highest average amount of Pell Grant aid to undergraduate students ($4,769) while having the third-highest percentage of Pell recipient undergraduates among peer universities in Virginia, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Decision Support at VCU.

“Over 50 years, the Pell program has increased access to higher education for many students, so that a lack of resources doesn’t prevent smart, hard-working students from earning a college degree,” said Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health. “Pell gives more students the chance to achieve the American dream, and get an education that will help them build the lives they want to lead. That’s the best metric of success, both for the Pell program and for colleges and universities – when our students succeed.”

A panel of six students sharing their stories at a congressional briefing
VCU grad Anir Ahant shares his story at a congressional briefing on the Pell Grant on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol. (Contributed photo)

As a junior at VCU, Ahant, a member of the Honors College at VCU, was named a recipient of the prestigious National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholarship Program, which provides $20,000 and a guaranteed summer research position at the NIH, as well as a paid post-baccalaureate training position at the NIH. He starts work at the NIH this summer. His goal is to eventually pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. and become a surgeon-scientist.

“To reach my goals, I knew I couldn’t just get through college, I had to do very well. I had to achieve highly,” he said. “The Pell Grant was a show of faith in my potential. So I didn’t want to let it go to waste.”

Federal Pell Grants are typically awarded to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need and have not earned a bachelor’s, graduate or professional degree. Unlike a loan, a Pell Grant does not have to be repaid, except under certain circumstances. Nearly 90% of all Pell Grants go to students with a family income of less than $50,000.

During his time at VCU, Ahant served as co-chair of the student advisory committee of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. He also was president of the student organization Center for Health and Human Rights at VCU and founded the Medical Scientist Training Club at VCU to help support other undergraduates pursuing an M.D.-Ph.D.

He also held two jobs as a student. He worked all four years in the lab of Greg Walsh, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biology, studying how the nervous system is built in the vertebrate embryo. And he was a supplemental instruction leader in VCU’s Campus Learning Center, helping other students with course content, study skills and other learning strategies.

In taking part in the Pell Grant anniversary events, Ahant is contributing to a larger campaign by higher education organizations and advocacy groups to support the doubling of the maximum annual Pell Grant to $13,000. A $400 increase in the maximum grant was included in the fiscal year 2022 appropriations process and President Joe Biden has proposed doubling the maximum grant by 2029.

As Ahant prepared for this week’s activities, he found himself worried that he didn’t have appropriate business attire for events with congress members and administration officials. Keith T. Parker, a member of VCU’s Board of Visitors, connected Mahanty with Kevin L. Fox, a VCU grad who majored in fashion illustration and design and who founded bespoke clothing company The Suited Fox.

Fox took Ahant to get a suit to wear in Washington, and tailored it to him. After this week’s events wrap up, Parker and Fox have also offered to provide Ahant with a new wardrobe as he embarks on his professional career and beyond.