On the outside Lena, 39, lived a comfortable life. She had a steady job in a clinic where she had worked her way up from being an HIV counselor to a case manager. Lena lived in a nice apartment and had plenty of free time, which she spent with friends and doing the things she enjoyed. But inside Lena felt something was missing. That something was professional satisfaction, which she knew would only come from going back to school.
"I got burned out in my job because I realized it was a dead end. I had gone as far as I could go and just got tired of the endless rut I was in," she admits. While some people would have just accepted the situation, Lena decided to do something about it and made the bold decision to go back to school. This time she would finally be able to earn her degree at a profession she had loved all her life. "I wanted to write," she says. "I have always written on the side. I wanted to change my life completely and do what I always dreamed of doing: finish college and accomplish something big."
Lena's decision had far-reaching consequences that went beyond her personal finances. As Lena explains, her job had come to define her. "Giving up my job meant giving up a part of my identity. Going back to school was like taking off a mask and standing naked in a hallway without mirrors. I was scared and didn't know if I had what it would take to endure three years of college successfully," she confesses.
But if fear kept Lena up at night, it was her determination that got her through the challenges. Her first step was to open a separate savings account dedicated to her goal. "I began to dump in extra money when I had it," she explains. Lena also chose to first attend a less-expensive community college where she spent $40 per class instead of $300 at a regular university. After completing her basic requirements at the community college she transferred to San Francisco State University to complete her BA in journalism.
While community college was affordable, once she got to S.F. State her costs skyrocketed. Lena first applied for financial aid but was disqualified because she had outstanding student loans that were in default from years earlier. "I knew my only source of financial aid would have to come from private scholarships," she recalls.
She began an exhaustive search for scholarships. Like many students Lena started with the Internet and applied for every award that she was eligible for and diligently followed the application instructions. As a result of her efforts, Lena received two "hefty" scholarships, one of which was the Jeanette Rankin Foundation Adult Scholarship Award. The money from these two scholarships covered her tuition, books and supplies.
Lena strongly encourages every adult student to look for scholarships. "There are literally thousands of scholarships available for non-traditional students," she explains. On why more adults don't take advantage of these opportunities, Lena feels that the main problem is that students "don't manage their time well enough." While understandable considering how busy most are, it stills means that many adults are passing up free money.
Lena understands how hard it is to make time to apply for a scholarship that you don't know if you will win. "It takes time to apply," she says, explaining that you have to fill out applications, get letters of recommendation and usually write a personal essay of about 500 to 1,000 words. She says you must begin the research and writing process well in advance and recommends at least six months before you start school. In her case, she searched for scholarships on the Internet and in books that she got from the library and bookstore. She applied to eight scholarships, which took her about two months of work.
She was awarded two and is still waiting to hear from more.
There's another advantage of scholarships, according to Lena. "The great thing about scholarships is that many of them are not just tuition based. In other words, you can pay your car insurance and your rent-anything to keep you in school. The only thing you must do is make sure to keep all of your receipts because when you do your taxes the IRS will want to know how you spent that money," says Lena.
Lena's advice to all adult students who have to pay for college is not to rely only on financial aid. Although federal and state governments are able to defray some costs, she says you can end up taking out too many loans to make up the differences. "That's why I can't emphasize enough how important it is to look for scholarships," she says.
While her life has changed dramatically since she began attending school, Lena believes that "money gained or lost cannot compare to the fulfillment of realizing your dreams." Working on her degree has increased her confidence while at the same time helped to build her academic and writing skills.
"I have never been this happy," she says. "My family and friends have stood by my side waving and cheering me on. I feel phenomenal." Lena's plans for the future include reporting for a newspaper and a wire service as well as venturing into media relations and eventually writing books.