By Nicole Burdakin, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry
For Dustin Haley and others facing uncertain futures as they age out of foster care or children’s homes, scholarship support from The United Methodist Church has helped turn the distant goal of a college education into reality.
“Since my first year as a scholarship recipient, I have always been grateful for the assistance that the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry has provided me,” Haley said. “They, along with other organizations, provided me with the funds to graduate from The University of Texas this past May, debt free.”
Haley, a Doctor of Physical Therapy candidate at UT Southwestern, was first awarded the J.A. Knowles Scholarship—a scholarship particularly slated for college students who have lived in religious, charitable, and benevolent children’s homes and orphanages or were in the foster care system in the state of Texas—when he was pursuing his bachelor’s in kinesiology.
For youths aging out of a foster care home and unsure of how they will pay for rent and food, much less tuition, funding a college education can seem like an impossible dream.
“This scholarship has been a Godsend for our youth. The current financial aid programs allotted to our youth do not provide for summers, Spring Break, Thanksgiving, and Christmas breaks,” said Kami Jackson, Director of the Lubbock Transition Center in Lubbock, Tex., who frequently refers candidates for the Knowles scholarship to GBHEM.
The Lubbock Transition Center opened three years ago as a “one-stop shop” for all foster, former foster, and at-risk youth in Lubbock and the surrounding areas. The center serves 14-25 year olds with basic needs including food, housing, and transportation, but focuses on education services. GBHEM awards many scholarships to youths from the center each year.
Haley, who first heard of the scholarship from Jackson, said receiving the Knowles scholarship has helped reduce his dependence on loans that so many students struggle with today.
“I am able to fret about finances a little less and focus my time and efforts on my schooling,” Haley said. “Today I am in my third semester of PT school, and I am constantly learning new things every day. I cannot wait to get into the clinic and start working with patients in just two short years.”
For students who qualify for GBHEM restrictive-criteria scholarships like the J.A. Knowles Scholarship, these funds can fill an important gap for those who don’t have family to rely on for help.
“This is a difficult road for youth who do not have stable housing or dependable family and friends,” Jackson said. “So, where do they go? Where do they live? How do they eat if they are a full-time student with no access to residence halls or dormitories? Through the Knowles Scholarship, we have been able to bridge this gap and help them where they need it most.”
Jackson first discovered the scholarship when she received a paper application from the Office of Loans and Scholarships more than seven years ago when she was an aftercare case manager for 17-21 year olds aging out of foster care. “That year, I had one youth complete the application, and they received the scholarship. The next year, three [students were awarded,] and the next year five. It wasn’t long before [the Knowles was] my ‘go-to’ scholarship… for youths I had on the right track,” Jackson said.
Each year, GBHEM’s Office of Loans and Scholarships contacts about 60 Texas children’s homes to promote the fund and to invite the benevolent homes to participate in the online application.
Many scholarships offered through GBHEM risk not being awarded year after year due to the highly restrictive criteria outlined in the original gift, often bequeathed in wills, to the agency. GBHEM’s Office of Loans and Scholarships searches diligently to find the right students in order to distribute these funds.
“We work hard to distribute the scholarship money we have to those looking for a way to attend college,” said Allyson Collinsworth, executive director of GBHEM’s Office of Loans and Scholarships. “Many of us take for granted the help our parents or relatives give in transitional periods, like going to college for the first time. The Knowles program is close to our hearts because we understand how much our support can do for the recipients.”
In 2013, 10 homes and two foster care families submitted applications for the J.A. Knowles Scholarship, and 32 applicants were awarded a total of $280,000. In 2013, the number of applicants and recipients had doubled over the year before, and the total money awarded tripled.
Jackson is thankful for the monetary support GBHEM provides to the youths she has overseen, but she takes it upon herself to follow through with emotional support and mentoring: “The biggest obstacle I see for all of my youth at The Lubbock Transition Center is emotional support from people who care. What I found to be the best way I could help was to love them unconditionally as their parents should have, as well as to hold them accountable for their actions. I expect respectable grades. And I remain in close contact with all of the youth I have served over the past 14 years.”
“Without the constant stress of worrying about paying bills, buying books, and other struggles of college students, I not only graduated, but did so with Honors,” Haley said. “I believe that it was due to the gracious hearts of donors within each of the organizations that have helped me along the way.”
Burdakin is editorial and production assistant, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.