Opening Doors, Changing Lives
Opening Doors, Changing Lives
Too often, students must weigh their academic dreams against their financial challenges. A new university-wide scholarship initiative seeks to lighten the burden on their educational journey.
// By Mary A. Dempsey
“Without a scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to go to a school like GW.”
Lydia Schalles, BA ’19
LYDIA SCHALLES, BA ’19, HAD A PLAN FOR HER LIFE.
The New Jersey native aspired to a career working for the government on international issues. She knew a degree from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs would take her there—and she was right. She was hired by the U.S. Department of Defense straight out of school to work on internationally focused projects. “One of the people who interviewed me for the job was a GW alum,” Schalles noted.
But that happy ending would never have materialized if not for a scholarship.
A scholarship was a determining factor in Schalles’ decision to attend GW—and perhaps in the course of her career. “Without a scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to go to a school like GW,” she said. Indeed, over the course of her four years at GW, Schalles received multiple scholarships of varying sizes, all of which allowed her to continue her studies.
Schalles isn’t alone. She’s part of an ever-growing number of students whose academic pursuits are intertwined with financial challenges, a problem that the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated. Without scholarship funds, Simisola Sodimu, BA ’18, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, might never have graduated from GW and founded her own skin care and wellness company. Scholarships helped Jennifer Meneray, MA ’18, become the first in her family to earn a degree. And Sowmya Mangipudi relied on scholarships to lead her on a path toward the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences, where she is finishing her final year and planning a career in vascular surgery.
“Scholarships are a game changer,” Mangipudi said.
Now GW is accelerating funding for scholarships and fellowships with a new initiative to increase student support. At the Our Moment, Our Momentum weekend in early October, which marked the culmination of GW’s bicentennial celebration, the university announced the launch of a special focus on raising funds to support increased access to a GW degree. “Open Doors: The Centuries Initiative for Scholarships & Fellowships” will draw attention to the need for greater support, offer outreach to the broader GW community and coordinate targeted fundraising across schools and colleges.
“You’ve seen our alumni–they speak up, jump in, get involved, dream big and demand a greater world,” said Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations Donna Arbide. “In every corner of the world GW alumni are leaders, but not every future leader has the same opportunity. We begin our third century charting a new course to increase access at GW. It is the right thing to do for our students, and it is critical to the future of our university, its mission and its competitiveness.”
“We begin our third century charting a new course to increase access at GW. It is the right thing to do for our students, and it is critical to the future of our university, its mission and its competitiveness.”
Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations
In addition to the Open Doors fundraising initiative, the university announced increased support to help close the financial gap for incoming undergraduate students who receive federal Pell Grants.
For this fall’s first-year student class, the university will provide enhanced need-based grants, loans and work-study packages. Increased funding will cover most of the direct costs of a GW education and allow families to avoid parent loans beyond their expected family contribution. In addition, a portion of recent gifts from alumni and friends will continue to be used to assist students whose families have been financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As one of the first in my family to attend college and as a scholarship recipient myself, I know that affordability and financial aid are major factors for students in choosing a school,” GW President Thomas LeBlanc said. “This fundraising initiative will provide consistent, ongoing support for talented students, making us a stronger university for years to come.”
“Scholarships are a game changer.”
GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences student
A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY
Academic excellence and location in the nation’s capital drive applications to GW. For more than 40 percent of applicants, however, affordability and financial aid are major factors in deciding whether to enroll, according to a 2018-19 student survey by the GW Office of Student Financial Assistance.
Among those who declined admission after being accepted to GW, 38 percent said the financial aid package was not competitive enough. Many students face a financial gap even after grants, work study, family contributions and loans are exhausted.
In many cases, just a modest amount of money can make a profound difference in a student's circumstance. The average annual financial gap for GW’s undergraduate students is between $3,000 and $6,000.
For Kelly El-Yacoubi, MA ’19, the two constants that anchored her degree in religious studies were her classes, which she loved, and her mad scramble for scholarship funding, which consumed her.
“I have a running joke that when I was in grad school, I spent more time applying for scholarships than my actual classwork,” El-Yacoubi recalled. “I had a spreadsheet of scholarships, both at the university and outside the university, that I was continually updating. I drove my professors crazy because I asked them to submit recommendations constantly.”
El-Yacoubi applied to GW as a stay-at-home mother of two whose husband was the family breadwinner. For years she had dreamt of continuing her education. By the time she received the happy news she had been accepted, her marriage had fallen apart and her former husband had lost his job and moved away. She was raising her children alone.
“I was stubbornly insistent that no one would take this opportunity from me. I said, ‘I will find a way to make this happen,’ and I was laser-focused,” El-Yacoubi said.
Semester after semester, she pieced together financial aid, including the Columbian Women Scholarship, which also offered career networking opportunities; scholarships in her school and program; and private scholarships. At the same time, she balanced her home-life challenges with her demanding studies. She found herself working as many as four part-time jobs at one point while trying to keep up with her classwork and care for her children.
El-Yacoubi persevered and earned her GW graduate degree, which focused on Islamic studies. She credits the prestige associated with a GW graduate degree in helping boost her job search. She now works as a marketing and communications specialist at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia.
“I was stubbornly insistent that no one would take this opportunity from me. I said, ‘I will find a way to make this happen,’ and I was laser-focused.”
Kelly El-Yacoubi, MA ’19
KEEPING STUDENTS ON TRACK
Endowed scholarship funds can enable generations of talented students to attend GW and carve out careers that bring them satisfaction. They also hold the power to prevent financial stresses from derailing degree plans. Up to 4 percent of GW undergraduates currently abandon their studies due to financial demands each year. Some never return to school.
For Simisola Sodimu, who graduated in 2018 with dual undergraduate degrees in philosophy and psychology, a scholarship was an affirmation.
“At a very competitive university like GW, getting a scholarship … goes a long way toward making you feel that you’re seen and someone believes in you,” Sodimu said.
She lauds scholarships as “a great equalizer” that can support “the minds that will … move America even further forward and funding people who will produce the things that will change lives.”
Today, Sodimu is a freelance public relations specialist. “It seems like public relations doesn’t connect to my degrees, but it really does,” she said. “It’s about how people react and interact, about crafting messages and stories.”
Like so many of her GW alumni peers, she is also an entrepreneur who gives back. Sodimu founded and runs Simisola Naturals, a skin care and wellness company that sources main ingredients from women-owned businesses in West Africa.
GW recognizes that the cost of higher education disproportionately challenges the fastest-growing segments of its student body, including first-generation and historically underrepresented students.
Jennifer Meneray, who earned a master’s in women’s studies at GW in 2018, said, due to financial hardships, no one in her family had ever attended a university before. “Now my young cousins—girls—look up to me,” she said.
Meneray assembled a patchwork of grants, student loans and other financial aid so she could take advantage of GW’s highly regarded Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences in a city that “is really expensive.” She had been accepted to a graduate program at the University of California, Berkeley, which would have been in-state tuition for her, but GW was her dream.
“My focus was social change through policy, so the D.C. location mattered,” she said. “It was a great program. I had really good professors.”
She was thrilled with the coursework, but concerns about money sometimes made her question whether she’d be able to turn her ambitions into reality.
“I worried whether I could afford to stay in D.C., especially when I stayed on into a third year to finish my thesis,” she said.
Meneray, who works in communications at the U.S. Forest Service, and other alumni talk about the power of scholarships to raise up students who might otherwise be left behind. “Scholarships bring a spectrum of diverse minds” to GW, she said.
“At a very competitive university like GW, getting a scholarship…goes a long way toward making you feel that you’re seen and someone believes in you.”
Simisola Sodimu, BA ’18
Graduate students come to GW to work with world-class faculty on cutting-edge, high-impact research. Fellowships make GW more attractive, including to the best and brightest students, because they eliminate the need for those students to take on additional loan debt, teach more hours or sign up for extra shifts at outside jobs while they juggle a demanding schedule of classes and research opportunities.
Sowmya Mangipudi, who is completing her medical studies at GW, is ardent about the way receiving a scholarship allowed her to explore medical specialties without feeling she had to focus solely on lucrative practice areas.
“Without a scholarship, it would been so much more difficult,” said Mangipudi. In addition to scholarships, GW paid the tuition for her to attend King’s College London for a year—an experience she described as “irreplaceable.”
The hidden cost of medical school can be crippling, particularly for students struggling with financial pressures, Mangipudi stressed. Preparation for medical board exams can run into the thousands of dollars; it costs $600 just to take the test. Travel and interview costs associated with residencies are also formidable.
But for Mangipudi, scholarships are not just about helping medical students, they are also about reshaping the entire field of medicine—for the better.
“Scholarships are the key to attracting and retaining more black and brown students in medicine, which is needed,” she said. “Scholarships also provide for economic diversity in medicine. We will turn out better doctors when they come from an economic spectrum, when they bring a perspective that better reflects the demographics of the patients they may treat.”
As a medical student, she cherished the opportunity to work alongside colleagues from different backgrounds. “It’s one thing to think about in the abstract, but it’s another when you have those experiences on a personal level,” she said.
“The more diversity we have in the workplace, the more perspectives we bring to situations.”
Scholarship and Fellowship Gift Guide
For many students, affordability is the make-or-break factor in determining whether they can pursue their dream of a GW education. By supporting endowed (existing in perpetuity) or current use scholarships and fellowships, donors step up to the front line in helping close the financial gaps that might scuttle a student’s degree plans.
Undergraduate tuition currently runs close to $60,000 a year; the full annual cost of attending GW is $79,760. An annual gift of as little as $10,000 is enough to establish a named annual scholarship.
There are many giving options to support undergraduate students or make gifts that enable GW to attract top graduate student talent. Depending on gift levels, scholarships may be named, may be designated for need or merit or may carry up to four recipient criteria, including the geographic region the student is from or their school, major, concentration or specialty area at GW.
named endowed partial-tuition scholarship for an undergraduate or graduate student or multiple students
named endowed student internship fund in a school or industry for that #OnlyAtGW experience
named endowed prize or award fund
named one-year annual scholarship
eliminates federal student loan debt for a graduating senior
covers unmet financial need for a GW student from a family earning less than $60,000
covers unmet financial need for a GW student from a family earning $60,000 - $120,000
space in a college readiness summer program for a high school student
provides books and supplies for a student for one year
provides books and supplies for a student for one semester
provides one week of on-campus meals for a student
To learn more about scholarship giving opportunities, please contact Development & Alumni Relations at [email protected] or 1-800-789-2611
Schalles: courtesy Lydia Schalles | Mangipudi: courtesy Sowmya Mangipudi | El-Yacoubi: courtesy Kelly El-Yacoubi | Sodimu: courtesy Simisola Sodimu | All other photos: GW Communications & Marketing