- Associated Press - Saturday, April 9, 2016

DANIELSON, Conn. (AP) - Sondra Adams, Jodi Clark and Christopher Harrington come from different towns and different backgrounds, and have different plans for their lives.

But all three have one thing in common: They all got help from the QVCC Foundation when it came time to pay for college.

In 1971, the doors opened at Quinebaug Valley Community College in Danielson, the same year the nonprofit foundation was formed to support the school’s fundraising efforts by courting local business leaders and community members.

“Other community colleges have similar foundations, but very few showed the kind of forward thinking and leadership that led to involving so many members of the community in fundraising efforts,” said Monique Wolanin, director of institutional advancement at the college. “Since 2010, the foundation has raised $2 million, money that allowed students since 2012 to graduate debt-free.”

Adams, 26, of Putnam, got married soon after graduating from a home-school program at age 18. She and her husband were deployed to Germany where she worked as a Red Cross volunteer. After her divorce, Adams thought about heading back to school.



“But I knew I couldn’t afford it, even working three jobs,” she said. “So I eventually applied for a scholarship offered by the foundation and ended up getting one for $1,500.”

Adams received other student grants through the college’s financial aid office, but the scholarship was key to allowing her to attend classes.

“People don’t know, but books can be as expensive as tuition,” she said. “The scholarship money was enough for me to buy books for two semesters. I was able to buy the books I needed and still have a little left over.”

Adams, the college’s student government representative and student liaison to the foundation, who will graduate in the fall, hopes one day to open an “adventure park.”

“I’m a completely different person because of the foundation,” she said.

In 2016, the foundation will offer 52 scholarships endowed by various individuals and businesses. The scholarships range from $500 to $1,750 and most are available to students with a 3.0 or better grade point average. A foundation committee screens applicants before their awarding in the spring.

Wolinin said the foundation has several annual “marquee” fundraising events, including a golf tournament and trail run that in 2014-15 helped raise more than $400,000. Of the money raised each year, the largest amount goes to scholarships, with other portions sent as block grants to the college’s financial aid office and for continuing education.

Putnam business owner Jessica Jellison, owner of Jessica Tuesday’s catering, graduated from Quinebaug Valley in 1996 and recently became a foundation supporter, attending and sponsoring fundraising events.

“QVCC offered me a place to attend college affordably and close to home,” she said. “I put myself through school, so I know how it can be a struggle for some to pay for those classes. It provided me a stepping stone to where I am now, and working with the foundation is my way of giving back. Everyone should have the ability to go to school. And if I can help by offering a lower rate when they ask me to cater an event, I’m glad to do it.”

Wolanin said the availability of traditional grants and scholarship money through the college and foundation allows students to graduate without taking on possibly crushing loans to pay for college.

“If these students have to take out loans at the community college level and something unexpected happens, those loans become a big weight around their necks,” Wolanin said. “It becomes a challenge to pay it back and then they’re saddled with debt. We see the money offered by the foundation as a hand up, not a hand out.”

A 2015 report by the Association for Community College Trustees found 17 percent of U.S. community college students took out loans to pay for school, a smaller number than those attending four-year or for-profit universities. But the community college students were also more apt to default on those loans- 20.6 percent compared to the 13.7 percent national default rate, according to the report.

The rising college loan default rate dovetails with a recent tuition hike in Connecticut. The Board of Regents for Higher Education recently approved a 3.5 percent tuition hike for community colleges, raising the yearly cost to about $4,200, a price tag that doesn’t include books or other ancillary costs.

Harrington, 19, of Sterling, began classes at the college last year, but since he didn’t qualify for financial aid, he had to be prepared to pay his tuition completely out-of-pocket.

“I work at a cranberry bog in Rhode Island and don’t have any other source of income,” he said. “I was awarded a $1,250 scholarship which allowed me to save the money I’d earned for the next couple of years of tuition.”

Harrington, who hopes to attend Nichols College after graduation, said qualifying for scholarships isn’t easy.

“A lot of the scholarships I looked at at first I didn’t’ qualify for, either because of my gender or race,” said Harrington, who is white. “I ended up making a video as part of my next application- the first time anyone had done that -and got one.”

Harrington said he’s been extremely frugal with his money and the scholarship funding provides a much needed buffer.

“I save every penny for school, even cutting corners when it comes to paying other things,” he said. “I want to have enough for four years of college without taking out a loan and being debt free.”

Wolinan said the foundation meets a specific need in a struggling part of the state.

“Windham County is the poorest county in the state and this is a volunteer-run organization,” she said. “And the hope is that by offering this kind of help, it will have a bigger impact beyond just the student. If the child of a single parent sees their mother or father studying for a college class, that makes a difference to that child. If a student is underemployed, making minimum wage, or unemployed and takes a course like the certified nursing assistant program, their pay can jump by up to $7 an hour, or $10,000 more annually.”

Clark, 40, of Plainfield, dropped out of high school in 1993, but earned her GED the same year.

“After my two daughters were going to school full-time, I thought about going back to school,” the New York native said. “I was a Navy wife working as an office manager for a cleaning company and I wanted the chance to earn more than minimum wage.”

Though anxious to move her life forward, Clark, now an education assistant at the college’s advanced manufacturing lab, said she was concerned about the cost of college.

“A relative told me about the scholarships and I ended up applying, even though I was scared,” she said. “Over a three-year span, I got $4,000 in scholarships, which was just huge. And it wasn’t just the financial part, which helped pay for books and gas to get to school, but also as a big boost in my confidence- you have to earn these scholarships.”

Clark graduated from the college in 2009 with dual degrees in liberal arts and engineering science, and later earned degrees in math and secondary education from Eastern Connecticut State University.

“The biggest thing about getting those scholarships was it showed that people believed in me,” she said.

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Information from: Norwich Bulletin, https://www.norwichbulletin.com

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