Three Degrees, Debt Free! How I recieved $36,500 in Scholarships with still an Opportunity to earn the Forever GI Bill

I have often been asked how I managed to graduate with three degrees debt free. An anomaly but an extraordinary accomplishment in a generation plagued by student debt. I figured I would share some tips that helped me navigate this process allowing me to earn $36,500 in private scholarships to supplement my GI Bill or there lack of.

Some background: A reader preface is in order to help you understand my thought process, priorities, and service.

I am an executive personality, total type A gal with a propensity to make long to do lists. I come from humble middle class beginning until the recession took a toll on my father’s business. This changed the way I thought about financial security at a young age. So, I rolled up my sleeves and worked throughout high school saving the little money I made knowing that I would not have the financial support. I did a lot of research to pay for school after my 19 ACT score, dyslexia, and 3.1 gpa didn’t exactly spell out college material.

I had been accepted to The University of Akron with the intent to join the Ohio Army National Guard after high school graduation to stay close to home for my family. The 100% National Guard Scholarship would go on to pay for both of my bachelors degrees and a minor (check out my interview predictions). I did hit a small snag my first semester while being waived in due to terrible eyesight. I took out loans and would pay them back slowly during school while I worked three jobs simultaneously for seven years. It would take me five and a half years to get my undergraduate degrees taking 15-18 credit year round. Toward the last year, I was grinding for scholarships to cover my last undergraduate semester. I would end up pursuing my master immediately following due to a surplus of outside scholarships. Returning $5,000 was unacceptable! Fearful of losing them I took all of my electives spring 2017 while waiting for 2017 summer provisional admission due to a low math GRE score. It was a giant hail mary play.

That semester I would be one of two to receive a graduate assistant (GA) position covering $12,000 of tuition after the university made huge GA cuts to the budget. After all said and done $36,000 in private scholarships with no financial aid. Yeah, you heard right… No FAFSA as a single income home. Despite the expected and highly unrealistic family contribution. I would be considered a dependent until I either deployed, married, or was over the age of 25 to be considered independent to qualify. I am a seven year non-combat veteran still serving (no Forever GI Bill yet), wouldn’t marry until 24 after my undergraduate degrees were completed, and was living independently at 20ish. FAFSA never saw my dad put his income back into the business or consolidate the family mortgage to pay debts from manufacturing pay cycles. Now you see why I was so motivated.

I saved constantly and found ways to supplement my income through work, using 1606 education benefit, VA work Study, and was putting into two forms of retirement at the age of 18 and 21. I logged everything academic, financial, scholarships, degree plan/outlook, calendar, and other important documents in what would become known as “My Life Binder.” Every time I opened my binder right in front of my goals, I would read the following:

“In times of doubt remember that one must prepare and tend the field for growth by pulling weeds, sacrificing time, dedicating your body and mind to hard work, and posses discipline to do it everyday until one can reap what they sow. It is the ultimate measure of patience and fortitude.”

So now that you know a little bit about my story let me share my tips with you how I did it.

1.) First Quit Making Excuses


2.) Refined Research

Stop taking yourself out of the race before you begin. I couldn’t tell you how many students don’t apply because they didn’t think they had a slight chance in hell of getting a scholarship. Well you have to quit that way of thinking if you want to get ahead. You have to make it a priority if you expect to see results.

You know that saying “Quality over Quantity?” Well there is some truth to this in the scholarship realm. Investing in scholarships that have personal meaning, alignment with your brand, and are specific could increase your chances for an award… So things like answering the question clearly, conveying meaningful experiences, and time spent is not wasted. It is important that you diversify from national, state, and local entities. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Most of the scholarships I received were local or at the state level aside from being a 1 of 2 The AMVETS Dr. Aurelio M. Caccomo Family Foundation Memorial Scholarship($3,000 awarded annually over four years, check out my video interview linked).I also went for specific organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)The American Legion (federal & state level), U.S. Army Women’s Foundation Legacy ScholarshipPat Tillman Foundation, and other degree specific scholarships. Seriously start local, speak to a campus financial aid representative or see what your military service office provides. Ask around, emergency scholarship are out there typically to help students internally. I would look at the school, local organizations, search county foundations, state education offices, local veteran service offices (VSOs), and still conduct website search engines.


Takeaways:

  • Find your Niche: Who are you and what is your brand, and how do you stand out? This is huge piece in selection aside from meeting basic criteria.
  • Explore National, State, & Local Scholarship Opportunities: Call and ask questions, put a voice to a name.
  • See What your College/University has to Offer: you could be missing out on opportunities by not seeking aid. Advisors, Financial Aid Office, Professors, Student Organizations all fall into this category.
  • Make a Laundry List: List all the scholarships you qualify for in order of from the most specific to broad. Once you make a master list then clockwork can begin.

(Pictured Below: Content Author speaks at SVA NatCon 2019 More Money, More Schooling: Using Scholarships to Supplement Your GI Bill Break out Session Panel. Photo by Robb Cohen Photography & Video)

 3.) Get Organized & Stand Out

If you want an A in math class you do your homework, right? Scholarships require the same planning much like an Algebraic equation… follow the formula and plug and chug the numbers. I referred to my “Life Binder” like the equivalent to a military brag binder for my fellow veterans. If I didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen. So get the right tools together for the job to manage numerous scholarships at once. I organized scholarships by requirements and deadlines. Upcoming due dates always in front with a post-up of requirements or the saved url in my email file folder.  

Here’s what you do… Write, Review, Save, Recycle, Repeat

  • Write down your passion, mission, or intent. I have found that most general essays ask you to introduce yourself, a passion, credential, pursuit, volunteer activity, and end goals with your degree or career outlook. Essentially, you need to tell your story and explain that you’re a return on investment.

For example: I would always reference my extensive volunteerism on and off campus focused on veterans and community endeavors, my continuation to service in in uniform, career/military aspirations. I am sure it was one of the reasons, I was attractive to Veteran Organizations. Believe it or not but, all of my scholarships were veteran oriented not a single one specifically to my undergraduate degrees, masters, or academic performance. Goes to show… seek your brand within scholarships.

  • Perfect 500 word essay… if you are sincere in your pursuits you should not be rewriting an introductory piece for every individual scholarship unless there is a unique requirement. That way you can focus on answering the more specific questions or tailored pieces. Also save every essay you ever complete. Halfway through a year of doing this, I barely rewrote a full essay. Work smarter, not harder. Also take it to a campus writing lab for review… it’s usually free for students.
  • Write down ALL the requirements and plan accordingly. Most likely you will always need duplicates of transcripts, letter of recommendations, and assorted documents like a DD214. Log and organize this information by deadlines. If you have questions call.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Find five people (mentors come in many forms), build a template for them, give them a resume, objective/intent of scholarship information, and a deadline way in advance. This requires you to know what scholarships you are applying for first.
  • Attention to Detail: There is nothing worse than half assing applications…people actually read these things so pay attention to detail. I once sent an application in with the wrong addressed scholarship group header… I felt like an idiot.
  • Form a Habit: After you consolidate your laundry list make a goal to submit three applications a month based on the deadlines you’ve gathered. It may not always work out that way but, just like any homework deadline you have to plan ahead. I used to submit 3-8 a semester (this includes repeats to the same organizations each year if acceptable). It is the luck of the draw but, solidifying your passion, mission, and intent will help you.

My hope is to inspire, educate, and connect others to not only information but, opportunities! My intent is to help my fellow veterans consider supplementing GI Bill to make it last even longer for a masters degree or law school. Or simply to give you hope that when you least expect it you can grab a few free dollars to invest in your future while in community college or a four year college.

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