I have often been asked how I graduated 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 their lack of. I am happy to announce I have received a full-tuition scholarship for my second master’s in public leadership. This brings my new total to $63,000 in scholarships. I will graduate in the Summer of 2022.
Some background: A reader preface is to help you understand my thought process, priorities, and service.
I am a protagonist/executive personality, a total type-A gal with a propensity to make long to-do lists. I come from a 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. I did much research to pay for school after my 19 ACT score, dyslexia, and 3.1 GPA didn’t precisely spell out college material from my high school counselors.
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 pay for both of my bachelor’s degrees and a minor. I hit a slight 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 working three jobs simultaneously for seven years. It would take me five and a half years to get my undergraduate degrees taking 15-18 credits year-round. Toward the last year, I was grinding for scholarships to cover my last undergraduate semester.
I would end up pursuing my master’s immediately following due to a surplus of outside scholarships received. Returning $5,000 was unacceptable! Fearful of losing them, I took all of my electives in 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 1 out of 2 to receive a graduate assistant (GA) position covering $12,000 of tuition after the university made substantial GA cuts to the budget. After all, is said and done, $36,000 in private scholarships with no financial aid. Yeah, you heard right… THERE IS no FAFSA as a single-income home despite the expected and highly unrealistic family contributions. I would be considered a dependent until I either deployed, married, or was over the age of 25 to be considered independent to qualify for any financial support.
I am an eight-year, non-combat veteran who did not qualify for the Forever GI Bill; I wouldn’t marry until I was 24 years old, finished my undergraduate degrees, and lived independently in my early twenties. 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 know why I was so motivated.
I saved constantly and found ways to supplement my income through work, using 1606 Montgomery Select Reserve education benefit, VA work-study, and was put into two forms of retirement at 18 and 21. I logged everything academic, financial, scholarships, degree plan/outlook, calendar, and other essential 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 possess the discipline to do it every day until one can reap what they sow. It is the ultimate measure of patience and fortitude.”
So now that you know a bit of my story let me share my tips with you on how I did it.
1.) First Quit Making Excuses
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.
2.) Refined Research
You know that saying, “Quality over Quantity?” Well, there is some truth to this in the scholarship realm. Investing in scholarships with personal meaning, alignment with your brand, and specific could increase your chances for an award. So, things like answering the question, conveying meaningful experiences, and time spent are not wasted. It is essential to 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 link). I also went for specific organizations specific to my background as a service member and the degree(s) I was pursuing.
For example, I applied for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), The American Legion scholarships at the state and federal level, U.S. Army Women’s Foundation Legacy Scholarship, Pat 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 scholarships 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.
- Find your Niche: Who are you, your brand, and how do you stand out? This is a large piece in selection aside from meeting essential 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, and student organizations 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.
3.) Get Organized & Stand Out
If you want an A in math class, you do your homework. Scholarships require the same planning, like an Algebraic equation… follow the formula, and plug and chug the numbers. I referred to my “Life-Binder” as the equivalent of 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 are always in front with a post-up of conditions 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 continued service in uniform, career/military aspirations. I am sure it was one of the reasons I was attracted to Veteran Organizations. Believe it or not, all of my scholarships were veteran-oriented, not a single one specifically to my undergraduate degrees, masters, or academic performance. It 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 an entire article. Work smarter, not harder. Also, please take it to a campus writing lab for review… it’s usually free for students.
- Write down ALL the requirements and plan accordingly. You will most likely need duplicates of transcripts, letters of recommendation, and various 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 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 you have to plan just like any homework deadline. 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.
I hope to inspire, educate, and connect others to information and opportunities! I intend to help my fellow veterans consider supplementing GI Bill to make it last even longer for a master’s degree or law school. Or to give you hope that when you least expect it, you can grab a few free dollars to invest in your future while in a community college or a four-year college.
(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)