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Support System

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Local nonprofit organization Support Our Scholars is helping young women in need turn their college dreams into reality

As local high-school graduations were in full swing, a charitable group of women in our community put on their own special ceremony. They welcomed a class of 21 high-achieving scholars to a festive gala with a fun purpose. It was a dorm shower designed to set the young women up for comfort and success, as they went off to college with essentials and niceties they would not otherwise have been able to afford. The initiative is called Support Our Scholars.

Support Our Scholars is a nonprofit organization that supports underprivileged young women in their efforts to earn a college degree. Each year since 2007, the group has awarded a number of local high-school graduates a $10,000 supplemental scholarship spread over four years to cover additional college fees, a laptop computer, and a dorm shower.

Nearly 300 women recently celebrated the new Support Our Scholars Class of 2019 at a gala lunch during which the grads were presented with much-needed items to stock their dorm rooms. To prepare for the event, table captains organized a wish list specific to each scholar and invited guests to donate the items. As the scholars entered the ballroom, donned in white sashes, the excitement was apparent. Each scholar found her dorm tower – complete with items from shower shoes and bedding to decorative flair and suitcases – labeled with her name.

“Even with traditional scholarships, it costs a lot to keep women in school,” says Susan Johnson, founder and president of Support Our Scholars. “We want to change the path of these women and their families.”

“By helping these young women, you change the whole trajectory of that person’s life,” says Jen Ferguson, a member of the organization’s board. “If she receives a degree, she can bring her family out of poverty and stop the cycle, because now she has a different life. She might choose a different partner, someone she meets in college, and she will raise educated children.”

But money is just a part of what the young women need, says Susan. Support Our Scholars also offers a mentorship program in which scholars are paired with college-educated women who volunteer to stay in contact with their scholars throughout their four-year journey. Mentors serve as a support system if the going gets tough, and the program has posted a 98 percent graduation rate among these students.

“The mentoring is the secret sauce,” says Susan. “Just because you have financial help doesn’t mean you won’t face adversity.”

“The mentoring is the magic,” adds Jen. “It keeps our girls in school. You can throw a ton of money at people, but less than three percent of foster children graduate from college, even with funds available to them, because they lack the guidance.”

Mentor coordinator Ginny Botts describes how it works.

“We pair scholars with mentors, and they meet during a mentor-scholar boot camp, a structured meeting where we do a lot of trust-building activities to start building the relationship,” she says.

The mentor is responsible for contacting her scholar once a week during the first year.

“Statistically, you are most likely to drop out of college during your first year, so we really try to provide a lot of support at the beginning,” says Ginny. “From there, the relationship grows organically.”

The 2019 class of scholars met their mentors in April, and they were given tasks to review before the fall semester begins. They might create a budget, look into financial aid, set goals, and consider possible majors.

Going forward, Jen says the scholars become part of a sisterhood of women who help each other out. If they graduate in a specific field, there’s usually someone in the Support Our Scholars network to offer career advice or an interview opportunity.

“Poverty is in my rear-view mirror,” says Jasmine Rolle, a Support Our Scholars graduate who recently received a bachelor’s degree in business management from the University of Florida. “I will not stop until the cycle of poverty ends.”

Another graduate is pursuing her Ph.D. in biochemistry. For those scholars considering advanced degrees, the organization will often provide some financial support for those taking the MCAT or the LSAT.

“Those tests are so important, and they need a good prep class,” explains Ginny.

Overall, the atmosphere around Support Our Scholars is exciting, hopeful, and thankful.

“I’m really excited,” says Yohanna, one of this year’s scholars, who is heading to New York’s Hamilton College. “I’m the first in my family to go to college, and my mentor has been super supportive in helping me.”

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