To help students find the money to stay in school, Georgia State University opened its Scholarship Resource Center last April.
To navigate the paperwork and deadlines, GSU students turn to Anna Katherine “Katie” Espada – a senior film and journalism major whose own life shows the impact of scholarship funding.
“I call her the poster child for scholarships – she’s on a full Goizueta Scholarship, doing amazing things with film and video including at the Cartoon Network and working 20 hours a week here, where she is more like my assistant than a student assistant,” said Marlena Parker (B.S. ’02), director of the Scholarship Resource Center.
“For many students working toward scholarships, Katie is the last set of eyes on their applications.”
The motto of the center and its message to students is, “Let us support you while you support yourself.” The center offers targeted assistance for the heart of most applications: the personal essay, which requires the student to express why they deserve funding.
A winning essay portrays the unique history and attributes of the student. This type of writing is more personal than a term paper and the stakes can be much higher. According to Timothy M. Renick, associate provost for academic programs and chief enrollment officer, GSU students who have sufficient funds to cover their educational costs graduate at more than three times the rate of those who do not.
To help students succeed, Espada teaches the seminar, “Writing a Winning Essay,” based on what she has learned from Parker on how to help students open up – and from her own experience.
“As a writer and filmmaker, I understand that there is a narrative thread that makes someone interesting,” Espada said. “I like people’s stories a lot. The essay is a window into their life, a way to know you that is the reason to invest in you, to know who you are.
“The hardest thing is to write about yourself so I keep asking them questions until the moment their eyes open up and they start talking and they’ve hit a chord and their story starts pouring out. There’s your essay.”
As a high school senior going for the Goizueta Scholarship, Espada was trying to put in words her unique story.
Growing up in Columbus, Ga., Espada identified more as Caucasian – her mother’s side of the family – than Puerto Rican, her father’s heritage. She is not fluent in Spanish and often wished her father did not call her Katie because he thought it was cute. “I wished my name sounded more Hispanic,” she said.
The question she learned to dread was, “What are you?”
“I know that I am not the embodiment of Hispanic culture and pride,” she wrote in her successful Goizueta essay. “In one of my favorite films, “Diarios de Motocicleta,” the character of Ernesto “Che” Guevera says, ‘How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?’ I know exactly how he feels.”
Espada represented the future leader that the Goizueta Scholarship intends to nurture, said Margarita Muñoz , a member of the committee that selected her. At GSU, Muñoz watched Espada assist with Latinos in the Fast Lane, a peer-mentoring program.
“When we interviewed Katie, we knew that she was part of this diverse group of leaders we were looking for,” said Munoz, now the regional coordinator of the Live Oak Migrant Education Agency.
“She had made a movie when she was in high school; she was proud and confident when talking about that. I was glad that a Latina student was ready to move forward in a field [film-making] that is not necessarily the most typical; as we know Latino leadership is needed in all areas. She has always reminded me that we have to be open-minded and consider leadership in a broader sense.”
At the center, Espada also coaches students on how to find and apply for scholarships and posts success stories to the center’s website.
Earlier this semester, for instance, Espada advised biology major Lakeisha Stephens on applying for a study abroad grant for global studies. Stephens is hoping to study current environmental diseases.
For university-wide scholarships, Espada reads through thousands of applications to help Parker identify finalists (a separate committee determines winners).
Looking back at her own narrative thread, Espada said her winning Goizueta essay tapped her feelings of not fitting in.
“My dad has lived in this country almost his whole life. My grandparents’ house gave me the opportunity to speak a little Spanish, but it wasn’t much a part of my life,” she said. “In my high school, I felt ethnically ambiguous. No group claimed me, and I felt very isolated. A lot of people from mixed cultures feel that way their whole lives because there’s not a mold to fit into, and people who accept you. It’s hard to know what people expect you to do, and you have to hope that you are OK as you are,” she said.
“The Goizueta Scholarship was a chance for me to be part of a group,” At Georgia State, I am not on the fringe of society…. The scholarship gave me a good opportunity to meet some people that I can learn from about my culture that I’ve been missing out on all my life. “
The funding also changed her life by giving her freedom to pursue filmmaking, confidence to find work in Georgia’s growing film industry, and a new goal – to live for an extended time with her Puerto Rico-based family.
“A part of me has been missing,” Espada said.
Meanwhile, students can find her in the Scholarship Resource Center, was set up in April 2011 to advance the university’s strategic plan, which includes increasing financial support for students. Unlike most research universities, nearly 90 percent of GSU students qualify for financial aid.
“The message we want to get out is that Georgia State has really made a valiant effort to support its students,” Parker said.
“When the HOPE Scholarship cuts were made, some universities told their students, ‘Good luck.’ But our strategic plan supports students who are unable to pay the difference between their funding and expenses. Our office wasn’t cheap to develop, and we are set to help GSU’s retention rates, to help students so they can focus on their education, not dollars and cents.”