For years, Vanessa Davis earned a living as a long-haul truck driver, crisscrossing the country in a big semi. After transitioning to administrative work with the trucking company, she eventually became a welfare eligibility worker for the Human Services Agency in California. But with a high school-aged daughter looking at colleges out of state, Davis, 53, began to contemplate her next move in life — one that would bring sustained happiness, support her mental and financial health, and would ideally come with in-state tuition. She moved from Stockton, California, to Longview, Washington (pop. 38,111). Once established in Washington, she learned about the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS), which was founded in 2011 and has helped more than 5,000 students get four-year degrees in highly sought-after fields like tech and health care.

“I’d been struggling, trying to figure out what can I still do with the disabilities that I have,” says Davis, who is part-Native American and suffers from spinal stenosis and panic disorder. “And it just so happens that in Longview, Washington, there’s a Cowlitz tribal office. And so I was going there for my medical services and they said, ‘Hey, we have a vocational rehab program here.’”

Vanessa Davis
Vanessa Davis

She’s one of the first recipients of the Rural Jobs Initiative, a program of WSOS that gives financial aid to support rural students pursuing high-demand fields at community and technical colleges across the state. Similar to the Opportunity Grant that Davis originally qualified for, the initiative has a laser-focused goal: getting students placed directly into underserved job markets.

“We only support high-demand fields, because it is really about that workforce development/economic development piece,” says Kimber Connors, WSOS executive director. “The jobs that are coming from these education programs, on average, earn about four times the average income of career and technical scholarship applicants when they first apply for the program.

Of the 20 recipients for fall quarter, 60% are women like Davis; the median income is $2,750; and also like Davis, 85% are first-generation college students.

Davis’ path to higher education has been a long and winding one. With the help of her counselors, she enrolled at Lower Columbia College, where she finished her high school diploma. While there, she decided to enroll in college for business management and applied and received an Opportunity Grant for a four-year degree. But after a few courses, she realized that her calling wasn’t in business, but in counseling those struggling with addiction. Sober for more than 20 years, Davis wanted to be able to help those in need just as others had helped her.

“My main goal is just to be there, just be there and be helpful. Anywhere I can be the person that I wish I had when I was quitting drugs,” Davis says. She switched to pursuing an AA degree in Chemical Dependency Studies.

In Davis’ view, the financial assistance has been a lifeline. She’s received $3,500 the first quarter, will receive $2,500 next quarter and $2,000 per term over the next two years.

“It has just made a huge difference, especially right now in COVID times,” she says. “I didn’t have a computer. I have the most basic internet you could think of.” The scholarship allowed her to purchase her own computer, and the improved internet is especially helpful as her daughter is taking classes online at the same time. “We needed better internet that allowed me to do that,” she says. “I have a printer, a scanner, a copier. It’s allowed me to get all the things that I need to successfully go to college.”

Kimber Connors, WSOS
Kimber Connors, WSOS

In addition to enabling students to access technology, Connors says, “rural residents face particular challenges to accessing education, and the need for safe, reliable transportation is really a barrier when campuses most often are more than 35 miles away from where they live.”

Indeed, Davis used the funds to fix her car so she could attend one of her in-person classes.

WSOS is one of those rare public-private partnerships that works, says Connors. Born out of a partnership sparked by Microsoft president Brad Smith and former Gov. Christine Gregoire, the program has helped about 5,000 students get degrees, raising over $200 million in funding, a 50-50 split in public/private funds. The Rural Jobs Initiative — which is part of the program — was sponsored by Rep. Mike Chapman and approved by the Legislature; all it needed was private funding to launch. That’s where Smith and his wife, Kathy Surace-Smith, stepped up to make a million-dollar cornerstone donation to the initiative.

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“Through that gift, we’ll be able to serve about 400 students over the next five years in the rural jobs program,” Connors says.

Davis’ first quarter of college is going well — in fact, she has an unexpected study mate: her daughter, who is enrolled in the Running Start program, which allows high school students to take college courses. “I have a study buddy,” she laughs.

Jokes about her late-in-life education aside, Davis is eternally grateful for the scholarship. “We struggle every month. There’s about $30 left after bills, rent, tank full of gas and household supplies. So it’s a struggle, and I really just want to have a career. It will mean the world to me, because I won’t have to worry about how to feed my daughter. The scholarship just helps with everything.”

Working collaboratively with the state and industry partners, the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship aims to connect our state’s leading industries with top Washington talent by reducing barriers to education and training and facilitating entry into high-demand careers for Washington students.