Scholarships abound for SOWELA Technical Community College students seeking to improve their lives through higher education. In 2018 alone, more than half a million dollars was distributed through the college's financial aid department and the SOWELA Foundation.
A core mission of the college's financial aid office is to help students in the most need achieve their academic goals.
"Our financial aid office is wonderful in that they know students and they are looking out for them. Faculty and staff are great in that way, too. If they hear of a need, they will share it with the office because many times a student may not even know to go to financial aid," Darlene Hoffpauir, marketing and communications manager, said.
Seventy-nine percent of financial aid recipients have a low to moderate-low income, according to submitted FAFSA forms and the school's one-page financial aid application. Allison Dering, director of financial aid, said, scholarship recipients are able to utilize funds for tuition and other school-related expenses, putting them on a fast track for career success.
"Scholarships help students to minimize post-college debt,” Dering said. “They are able to immediately enter the workforce and begin contributing to the community without having to worry about the burden of student loan debt."
Douglas Berry, a culinary arts student, is the recipient of the McIlhenny Foundation Culinary Scholarship. Berry, a cook at the Golden Nugget Casino Hotel and Resort and aspiring entrepreneur, said the scholarship funds are perfectly positioning him to reach his dreams of opening his own food truck upon graduation.
"If you want to go to school and say you have financial freedom after you're done, that's where I am," he said. "Because SOWLEA and the McIlhenny Foundation have helped so much with the financial burden of school, my mind is able to focus on my studies and do what I need to do."
Raising his grandkids has been an unexpected finance for the disabled veteran but with his job at the casino, a Pell Grant and the scholarship, Berry said he feels free to take care of the family finances while still focusing on his long-term goals.
"Our normal income is taking care of everyday stuff for me, and my scholarship helps me to get better at what I'm doing and increase my income to start a business of my own."
Berry is approaching his final terms at SOWELA and said he was somewhat apprehensive about the core classes outside of culinary; however, knowing the college believes in his potential puts his mind at ease.
"The morale boost is wonderful because somebody actually noticed the work that I've done. It's like somebody extra is helping me with school which makes everything easier," he said.
SOWELA scholarship awards range from as little as $38 to $5,300 per year, Dering said. "Many of these student awards meant the difference between being able to continue attending college or dropping out," she said.
Such is the case for Robert Engel who is dually enrolled in the industrial instrumentation technology program and the industrial electrical technology program. Ready for a career change, Engel said he Google searched, “Highest paid two-year degree.”
His search brought him to SOWELA’s website and he decided to enroll. He had been living abroad in Bali for nearly a decade when he decided to create a new life in the U.S.
Noting the staggering wage gaps and limited economic mobility while living overseas, he said he knew it was time to take advantage of the American dream. “What inspires me is I know what we have here. That's what gives me my drive. I appreciate everything and I see a lot of opportunity in the value of what we have here.”
Engel was awarded a Pell Grant but it was not enough to cover all of his expenses, including sending money back overseas to his wife. He works two jobs in addition to going to school to make ends meet.
Things changed significantly, he said, when he was awarded the Philips 66 scholarship. “It eases the burden of having to work super overtime, crazy hours which then affects my studies and then affects my grades. Right now, though, I have a 4.0,” he said proudly.
The additional funds allow him the tuition to take additional classes, fund extra-curricular projects and even save for immigration expenses for his wife. He gave credit to such opportunities to the American economic and education system, a privilege many countries do not offer.
“If I'm not happy with my situation, I'm going to make some adjustments to put me where I want to be,” he said. “Here in the U.S. it's cool because you can do that. A lot of other places, like Indonesia, the mobility is not like here. You can't just go from a kitchen and jump into industry. There’s a lot of opportunities here and there’s a lot of colleges that help facilitate moves like that.”
While Engel’s path that led him to SOWELA originated across the globe, Dering said 95 percent of scholarship recipients are local students from the surrounding five-parish region. Marisa Cooper, a graphic arts student and recipient of the H.C. Drew Foundation Scholarship, is from Merryville.
Cooper drives an hour each way to SOWELA’s Lake Charles campus, a trek that was taking a considerable toll on her finances. “I was really worried that I wouldn't be able to afford the gas money.”
Her scholarship combined with work study has taken a considerable load off of her mind and her family, which didn’t have the money to finance her education or its related expenses. When they learned of her award, Cooper said, “They were just overjoyed because they knew how difficult it was just trying to get here every day.”
Even filling out the application was a stressless process, Cooper said, noting it was short, easy to understand and “didn’t take much time at all.”
“Some applications ask you questions in such a way you can hardly tell what they’re asking," she said. "But this was nothing like that.”
Scholarships are distributed through the SOWELA Foundation, “community members that are giving back to help other individuals in the community further their education and their career,” Hoffpauir said.
SOWELA’s next scholarship fundraiser, “What’s Up, SOWELA?” will be Thursday, Oct. 24, for industrial programs, and Thursday, Nov. 7, for non-industrial programs.
Contact Nuria Reyes-Arias, executive director of institutional advancement, at 421-6903 or email@example.com for more information.
For more information on SOWELA’s financial aid opportunities visit, www.sowela.edu/admissions/financial_aid/.