While she was serving time in federal prison on drug charges, Lorelei Clark promised herself she would finish her education when she got out.
Two weeks after she was released, she began taking classes at Seattle Central Community College.
But Clark, a high-school dropout, needed help to bring her work up to college-level standards. She burned through a year of federal financial aid taking remedial classes — even as she discovered she was really good at math and science.
Each year, about 800 adult students like Clark earn top grades at Seattle Central Community College but need more financial assistance than they can get from state and federal sources. Now, the college’s foundation has started the state’s first community-college scholarship program, to help such students go to school for free.
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The Seattle Promise Scholarship will assist adults returning to school who keep a 3.0 GPA and attend school full time, said Adam Nance, executive director of Seattle Central Foundation.
It will fill in the gap after federal and state grant money and other scholarships are taken into consideration, so students will not have to pay any tuition.
Nance said scholarship applicants will have to enroll and take at least two classes, proving their ability to maintain a 3.0, then fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. The first scholarships will be awarded in August.
The program is similar to the University of Washington’s Husky Promise program, which gives free tuition to low-income students. Nance thinks Seattle Central may be the only community college in the nation making such an offer to adults returning to college.
The money is being raised privately, with contributions from Safeco Insurance Foundation and Boeing. The program will launch with about $100,000 in scholarship funds to cover tuition for 225 students but hopes ultimately to help all students who qualify. Right now, some students do find enough scholarship money to complete their degree; the Seattle Promise Scholarship will greatly expand the number of students who attend tuition-free.
In Clark’s case, the 31-year-old single mom was able to find enough scholarship money to stay in school, grabbing at every opportunity she could find and winning scholarships from NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Washington Opportunity Scholarship and Seattle Central.
She’s been accepted at Washington State University’s animal-science program and plans to become a large-animal veterinarian. She is the first person in her family to go to college. “My family is just ecstatic,” she said.
Although there are no age restrictions on applicants, the college expects most award winners will be adults, who make up 94 percent of the school’s enrollment, Nance said.
Adults are often in a kind of no man’s land for scholarship help. Unlike students who come directly from high school, adults don’t have guidance counselors to coach them, and they don’t qualify for the lucrative College Bound program that pays tuition for low-income students who start college directly after high school, Nance said.
Many have already started families and need to work to provide for them. “This scholarship says, ‘We’ll continue to fund you if you continue to hold up your side of the bargain,’ ” Nance said.
The program is designed to help people like Najwa Alsheikh, who was in her late 20s when she went back to school at Central. A single mom with a seventh-grade education, Alsheikh received top grades and soon won several scholarships.
Financial aid was “like somebody threw a life preserver out to me in the ocean,” said Alsheikh, who has been accepted to four universities to complete her bachelor’s degree — including the prestigious Smith College in Massachusetts, which is offering her a full-ride scholarship.
And it would help people like John Hord, who used to panhandle in front of Seattle Central when he was homeless and will graduate in June with a 3.61 GPA.
Hord, a member of the Chippewa tribe, used some of his welfare money to pay for a single class at Central. When he did well, he started working on a degree, eventually winning Muckleshoot Tribal Council scholarship money. He plans to continue studying at Central to get his applied bachelor’s in social and health services.
Nance thinks Seattle Promise may be unique because it’s being offered to all students, not just those matriculating directly from high school.
Among those programs are South Seattle Community College’s 13th Year Promise Scholarship, which guarantees every graduate from Cleveland and Chief Sealth high schools a year of school tuition-free. Grays Harbor College and Vancouver’s Clark College also offer generous aid to students coming from high school.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.