Julie Schwietert Collazo 2016-05-04 03:39:28
Nuno Alberto Pereira’s story is proof that talented students can earn degrees and enter adulthood unsaddled by debt. What it takes, he said, is a college whose staff is committed to developing a robust scholarship program that makes such a possibility achievable. “Stop and think about how amazing it is that a Hispanic student who entered with no scholarship or aid, is able to graduate with two years of college, have a degree, and still have no form of debt or financial burden,” he stated, referring to his own experiences as an alumnus of Union County College (UCC). As the cost of college education rises each year, it is becoming increasingly difficult to graduate debt-free. An analysis of government data by Edvisors found the average 2015 graduate with student-loan debt will have to pay back a little more than $35,000, more than twice the amount borrowers incurred two decades earlier. Even at community colleges like UCC, the cost of tuition can be out of reach for economically disadvantaged students like Pereira. A Spring 2015 graduate, Pereira has a long list of academic and extracurricular accomplishments. He was elected president of UCC’s Student Government Association in 2014 and served in that position for one year. Since graduating, he has been a representative on the school’s Board of Trustees, while carrying a full course load at John Jay College of Criminal Justice where he’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in forensic psychology, thanks to another prestigious scholarship, one that is awarded to only 90 students in the whole country. His long-term goal is to earn a doctorate and conduct research in the area of eyewitness misidentification. It’s a dream that seemed out of reach not so long ago. “I started Union in the fall of 2013,” he recalled, and “had difficulties with the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application and had to pay for my first semester. Coming from a low income family, this was difficult to do.” He turned to UCC’s online scholarship application, which, he said, is user-friendly and ultimately received five scholarships, including the Hispanic Law Enforcement and Coca-Cola Leaders of Promise scholarships. Together, these covered his tuition expenses for his two years at UCC. Filling out the online scholarship application takes a minimal amount of time and it “allows students to quickly be considered for all the scholarships at UCC. Students are automatically matched with qualifying scholarships,” Pereira explained. Unfortunately, many students aren’t aware of this application, nor of the full range of UCC’s scholarship offerings, many of which are need-based rather than merit-based permitting grade point averages as low as 2.0, he pointed out. This is “one reason UCC stands out as it attempts to address the needs of students,” Pereira said. “The wonderful aspect of Union County College is that the Union County College Foundation is continuously finding new ways to raise additional scholarship funds to award to students,” he added. Currently, the school offers nearly 125 scholarships, many which are designated for or give preference to Latino and Latina students. These scholarships are a vital lifeline for students who “have the brains and drive,” but lack the money to attend college, said Dr. Stephen Nacco, UCC’s vice-president of administrative services. “Even though community colleges like Union charge tuition that’s only a fraction of what universities charge. In Union County thousands of students still struggle to pay Union’s tuition,” Nacco stated. One of the reasons they struggle is because their family incomes exceed the threshold for federal and state tuition assistance grants, but barely clear the poverty line, he explained. “These are the students the scholarship fund helps,” the administrator said. “We support more than 600 of these students each year and invest almost $800,000 in their college educations. People who donate to the scholarship fund are helping these students achieve their dream of a college degree.” Because it is the oldest community college in New Jersey, founded in 1933, UCC has “by far and away amassed the largest overall endowment among New Jersey community colleges,” according to Nacco. That endowment currently is $15 million, five percent of which is awarded in scholarships each year. It’s seeded by loyal alumni who are passionate about their alma mater. Among them is Helen Chaney, an alumna who graduated from UCC in 1948. In December 2015, she made a gift of half a million dollars to the school to fund multiple scholarships, including three endowed scholarships that will generate $5,000 per year in perpetuity. It’s the kind of gesture Pereira might make 50 years from now. “I speak highly of UCC because I feel a debt of gratitude to the college for its life-changing process,” he said. “It took me from being a high school graduate with no observable potential in the community or academics, and turned me into a community activist, fighting for immigrant and worker rights, and a passionate scholar.” Would you like to read this article in Spanish? Visit www.jerseyboundlatino.com/articles.
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