Giving Thought: A financial and emotional boost for high-school graduates

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

It’s been another great year for high school graduates and continuing college students from the Aspen-to-Parachute region. As they do every year, dozens of individuals, businesses and other organizations have donated thousands of dollars to help the valley’s young people pursue a post-secondary education.

Every year at this time, it’s remarkable and heartwarming to see how members of our communities step up to support graduates as they leave the nest and step into a bigger world. Some scholarships come from a person or family, in memory of a loved one; others come from businesses or nonprofits and go to students with talent in a particular field. Some are awarded based on financial need; others are given for athletic or academic merit. Service clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis and the Elks are well-known for their scholarship gifts, but scholarships really come in all shapes and sizes.

Aspen Community Foundation is just one of many players in this venue, but we’re proud to have awarded $233,500 this year to a total of 100 students. These students include 45 high school graduates and 55 continuing students who will attend 17 colleges and universities in Colorado, California, British Columbia, Iowa and New York.

This kind of financial assistance makes a huge difference for students whose families couldn’t afford a four-year college education on their own. And plenty of this year’s graduates are the first ones in their families to even attend college.

“A lot of our first-generation families are incredibly supportive of the idea of going to college, but they haven’t been saving money their whole lives and they haven’t been instilling the idea of college in their kids,” said Liz Penzel, college counselor at Basalt High School. “So they’re just grateful. They never imagined this money could just appear.”

America Ceja, 17, is exactly this kind of student. Thanks to multiple scholarships pursued through hard work, careful time management and a mountain of paperwork, Ceja will attend Colorado Mesa University in the fall, aiming for a bachelor’s degree in exercise science.

“I’m going to spend most of my summer working, but I’m so excited for Mesa in the fall,” she said. “I’m definitely ready for something new.”

A few students earn the legendary full-ride scholarships but most families pay college tuition through a combination of financial assistance and their own investment. In addition to the monetary boost that scholarships provide, Penzel believes the application process delivers benefits, too.

“The interviews, writing about yourself, advocating for yourself, saying this is who I am and here’s my story — it’s a really good lesson as you go off into the world of college and career,” Penzel said. “That’s what you have to do out there.”

The impact of scholarships varies from school to school, but Basalt is second only to Aspen in the level of community support for its college-bound graduates. This year, roughly $350,000 was disbursed to 39 Basalt High School graduates from 32 organizations and individuals.

The demographics of the two public high schools are very different. Nearly two-thirds of BHS graduates in recent years have been first-generation college attendees. And somewhere between 20% and 40% of BHS graduates pursue two-year certificates, as opposed to four-year degrees. A number of the scholarships are intended specifically for those kinds of students.

“Our school has a wide range of economic diversity,” Penzel said, “so these scholarship committees really try to reach as many kids as they can.”

And that’s another key outgrowth of the local scholarships. They’re a shining example of a community supporting its young people at a crucial transition in their lives.

“The idea that the community has your back — it really makes the kids feel like they come from a good place,” Penzel said.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.


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