03:42 AM

Scholarship helps fuel opportunity for first-generation college student

After being on the Columbus campus of The Ohio State University for three weeks, Bella Garcia found herself standing in a parking lot early in the morning, crying.

It wasn’t the first time she had been reduced to tears that morning. But the source of the crying wasn’t frustration or fear. It was elation over some very good news: Her college costs had just dropped dramatically.

Garcia grew up in Newbury in Geauga County, raised by a single mother in a blue-collar family. She was part of student council and a member of the National Honor Society at West Geauga High School. But she admits she didn’t start thinking about attending college until her junior year.

“It wasn’t something that my family did. But at my school it was just expected of most of the students that they would go on to higher education and I just want to be part of that expectation,” she said.

Although Garcia applied to other universities in Ohio, she knew where she wanted to go.

“As soon as I got my acceptance letter from Ohio State, I completely forgot about anywhere else. They didn’t matter anymore,” she said. “I had a teacher and I really liked the way he explained it. He had this belief that every place has a culture, a spirit that went along with it, a feeling that you get from being there, and I fell in love with the culture of Ohio State. I loved all the pride that the students had for the school. I really wanted to be a part of that.”

Her biggest challenges were convincing her family, who had little experience with the application process, and finding a way to pay for it. Garcia’s good grades helped solve part of her problems.

In her senior year, Garcia was awarded one of 88 annual Land Grant Opportunity Scholarships to Ohio State. At the time, the scholarship covered the cost of tuition only. Garcia would have to make up the difference. But some fortuitous timing helped out.

In July, university leadership expanded the scholarship program to cover the full cost of attendance, including room, board, books and other costs. The change went unnoticed by Garcia until that early morning meeting shortly after she had arrived at Ohio State.

President Drake

“Towards the end of the third week of classes we had a meeting for the scholarship where they explained the change with [the scholarship] and what that meant. And they explained it changed to a full-cost-of-attendance scholarship,” she said.

“I just remember being so happy and shocked at the news that I started crying during that meeting,” she said. “I remember one lady telling me, ‘Go call your mom.’

This year, Ohio State initiated several programs in an effort to make college more affordable. The university announced in September that all in-state students who qualify for Pell Grants would receive financial aid to cover the full cost of tuition and fees.“So I walked out of that room wiping tears from my eyes, it’s 9 a.m. in the morning and I called my mom and I explained to her the scholarship, and how it changed and what that meant. We were both crying over the phone because it was just so amazing that we wouldn’t have to worry about how to afford college,” Garcia said.

The university also created the Ohio State Tuition Guarantee, which freezes tuition and fees for each incoming class of first-year students for four years. And the scholarship program that aided Garcia will now cover twice as many students.

President Michael V. Drake said it’s not enough for college to be excellent. It has to be affordable as well.

“We find, unfortunately, that students in the lower half of the income distribution don’t seem to have quite the opportunities as students from the upper half of the income distribution,” he said. “So studies have shown that there are about 50,000 students who would qualify for attendance at a school like The Ohio State University and be successful, but aren’t at a place like this for a variety of reasons.”

Under Drake’s leadership, Ohio State is a founding member of the American Talent Initiative, a first-of-its-kind partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, Ithaka S+R and the Aspen Institute to enroll an additional 50,000 low- and moderate-income students at top-performing colleges and universities over the next decade.

“I think that’s one of things that we’re focused on with the American Talent Initiative – to make sure that people, no matter what their zip code or neighborhood, realized there are outstanding colleges there for them,” Drake said. “And that we’re reaching our hand out to help you.”

Garcia said that helping hand needs to be extended to as many students as possible. She is currently a business major with a specialization in marketing and said her experience has her two younger brothers looking forward to an Ohio State education. She’s happy her opportunity will be extended to more families like hers.

“I think it’s really important because sometimes kids from low-income families, if they feel like college is not an option, that it’s not something that they can afford or do, then they stop working towards that goal,” she said. “Or they stop trying, they give up hope, they lose faith. I think having scholarships like these, that people know about, and know that if they work hard that they can get, makes a huge difference in where people go.”