She will graduate debt-free, and wants to tell you how you can, too
Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.
RICHMOND, Va. — At a school where the average student graduates owing $27,000, Lorraine SantaLucia will finish Virginia Commonwealth University this year debt-free.
SantaLucia, a senior public relations major from Virginia Beach, funded her education not through loans or family financial help, but with grants and scholarships large and small.
"I basically made scholarshipping my full-time job, and I thought about it the same way," SantaLucia said. "On the weekend when I didn't have classes, that's all I would do. I would apply for 10 to 20 scholarships at a time."
The success she found led her to start a student organization called Scholarship Sharing with her friends to spread their strategy for avoiding debt. Next month, the group will host a scholarship fair to help connect students and their families to opportunities they may not know exist.
Especially if they're the first in their families to go to college, SantaLucia said, students might rely only on financial aid without realizing they have other options.
"They don't know where to look. They don't know where to start," she said.
Her group seeks out unusual scholarships as well as more traditional ones and grant programs.
"With our group, we're talking to real people, and we're asking for help specifically on things like, what if my family member has cancer, or what if I've been diagnosed with ADHD, or what if I'm only 5 foot tall," she said.
They've found scholarships for tall people, short people and even for creative types who make prom dresses out of duct tape.
"You'd be surprised at the kind of scholarships you can find," said SantaLucia, who has won about 20 scholarships, most of which ranged from $500 to $1,500. The largest was a $5,000 scholarship she received for two years from the Hispanic College Fund.
In addition to working part time to cover her expenses, she also has received Pell Grants, the federal program that aids students from families with the most financial need.
Her pursuit of scholarships began in earnest after she had to leave the private Hollins University in Roanoke after one year for financial reasons. Part of her tuition there was covered by her stepfather's GI Bill benefit from his service in the Navy.
But she said she was determined to become more independent and not exhaust the GI Bill benefit, which her siblings might also need.
She and a few friends began sharing their ideas for finding scholarships on a Facebook page that quickly attracted several hundred people.
"We started off just trying to help each other fund our education," she said.
One beneficiary of that collaboration was SantaLucia's sister, Nicole, who won the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship after learning about it on the Facebook page.
Scholarship Sharing's vice president is Emily Rouse, a sophomore from Wheeling, W.Va., who joined her freshman year when SantaLucia helped match her with potential scholarships.
"I started going to every meeting when I found out how useful it was," she said.
The group holds workshops on writing essays and resumes — Rouse credits the resume advice she received for helping her land a work- study job on campus this semester.
As an out-of-state student, she relies on some loans each semester, in addition to help from her parents, and is hoping scholarships will reduce the final tally of her debt.
Rouse said the group isn't concerned that sharing information on scholarships will make winning one more competitive.
"Our motto is 'We share because we care,"' she said. "The whole point of the group is to spread awareness of scholarships and encourage applying, not to hide them."
That is the goal of the scholarship fair, which will be held Oct. 9-10 from noon to 5 p.m. at the Student Commons, 907 Floyd Ave. Representatives from more than 50 groups offering scholarships are scheduled to attend the fair, which is free and open to the public.
One point SantaLucia said she stresses to other students is not to overlook smaller scholarships and set their sights solely on large ones that will be more difficult to win.
"You don't know that that big $10,000 scholarship is going to come up," she said. But receive 10 smaller ones worth $1,000 and "you end up with the same result."
The work involved in applying for multiple small scholarships is not that much greater, she said. Generally, the smaller scholarships require shorter essays that can often be recycled, as can faculty recommendations.
"It's the same time frame applying for the smaller ones as it would have been applying for the big one," she said. "It's worth it to apply for every opportunity, even the ones that are small and may not be a lot to you. If you get a $500 scholarship, that's $500 you didn't have before."