What Motivated Me to Go to College Debt-Free

“If you get to college for free, I’m going to buy you a brand new, blue Corvette,” my mother exclaimed to my five-year-old self. Little did she know, this deal would propel my ambition toward succeeding in getting my favorite car coated in my favorite color that I had always driven on a PlayStation racing game. Thirteen years later, I received over 1.25 million dollars worth in scholarships.

I don’t necessarily come from a background of educational strife, in which I had no focus on doing well in school until a teacher intervened and contributed to the upturn of my academic career. Even though I did have many excellent teachers who profoundly influenced my perspective on life, I was an all A student for most of my grade school career (except for that one C in writing in the fourth grade). I didn’t know what it meant to struggle on assignments or tests. This paradox led to me to become a very unmotivated student.

It wasn’t that my motivation prevented me from doing well in school, it was the fact that I was only doing what I believed was expected. I didn’t love learning at all. I looked at the clock in every class at every hour of every day in every grade. I don’t remember a time in which my attention was focused entirely on what the teacher was saying. School was my least favorite place to be as I was far from being in the cool crowd, and I wasn’t the first person to raise my hand in class. As years went by in school, I felt like I didn’t belong. My relationship with my friends and family seemed to be fading away as I had been dealing with significant self-esteem issues.

Then it hit me. Heavy stress fell upon the haven of home as my family almost lost it during the Great Recession. When we moved to a temporary home “just in case,” I had realized how much I hated change. I decided that I wanted to ensure that my parents would never have to worry about paying for me to go to college. In the tenth grade, I joined the National Honors Society, and I started to get more involved inside and outside of school. As I realized how large a role that I could play in improving my community, the number of extracurricular activities that I participated in began to snowball. I started to lead in causes that I believed in such as becoming a team captain for the Relay for Life and holding a teddy bear drive for Orchards Children’s Services.

I had become an active, motivated student leader who developed a sense of purpose and belonging. Toward the close of eleventh grade, I finally decided to take a crack at applying for scholarships. During my computer class, I would rush to finish my typing assignment to spend the rest of the hour searching for scholarships. I had eventually compiled a list of awards that I qualified for. One day, I spent hours writing essays, determined to earn the experience of going to college debt-free.

I never heard back. The effort and time that I put into applying for seven scholarships didn’t even receive as much as an email response informing me that I applied. Dissatisfied with the fact that I had been working toward achieving my personal goal of winning at least one scholarship that year, I was undeterred. This incident led to me to work even harder in finding scholarships. By the summer before my senior year, I made a schedule of when specific scholarship applications would be available and started applying. That summer I also joined a summer engineering program at my dream college, the University of Michigan.

Toward the last few days of this program, we learned that we would have to give a presentation detailing our activities and involvement inside and outside of school. I was nervous about public speaking as I’m pretty sure most people are. I felt like my presentation didn’t even measure up to all of the other students I had been competing against. The students I were up against had tremendous achievements such as getting top scores on all of their 9 Advanced Placement (AP) classes and being able to solve the Rubix cube in roughly 20 seconds. I felt outclassed to say the least. My three AP classes and poor puzzle solving skills just did not compare.

At the ending ceremony of the program, we learned that the students with the best presentations would win a $40,000 scholarship. My nerves were going wild as I knew I wasn’t going to win. As students were addressed, not by name, but by the activities that they were involved in, I was desperate to grasp something that sounded familiar. Then it happened.

Before I knew it, I was on the stage, my mother in tears by my side. I had received my first scholarship to my dream college. This day marked the beginning of the scholarship hunt.

During my senior year of high school, I left no stone unturned as I applied to every scholarship that I fit the qualifications for. I submitted applications for scholarships that I found through search engines (Google was my best friend, i.e. type in “scholarships for high school seniors”), local organizations, and word of mouth. My best practice was to immediately write the essay and fill out the application as soon as I found it. I recommend this only if you’re comfortable with your writing ability.

At the beginning of spring, I made the news. I had won the Buick Achiever Scholarship, a $100,000 scholarship for students who want to major in the STEM field. They even flew me to see the NCAA Final Four basketball championship games in Texas, where I met the other four of the First Five to students to ever earn the scholarship. When I got to meet these students, I didn’t realize how much of an outlier I was. I had done well in school, but these students received perfect scores on the ACT and SAT. I was from the suburbs of Detroit, and our underfunded schools were barely breaking even. The opportunities afforded to these students were not as widespread where I’m from. Even so, I learned to stop doubting my ability and gained confidence in my work.

I didn’t know what “secret sauce” I had been putting in the applications that made application reviewers select me. Then it dawned on me. It wasn’t my high GPA, my ACT score, or my bright smile that afforded me the opportunity to win these scholarships, though I’m sure it helped. It was the fact that I had been active in being an agent of change in my community. The hours that I spent going to senior citizens’ homes, walking for cancer awareness, leading in organizations, participating in drives, having a job, etc. made me an incredible investment for these organizations. The key is to consistently involve yourself in activities that you’re passionate about or are purposeful, not merely to add something to your resume. The allure of a student that knows how to take the initiative and positively impact the community is much more appealing to a scholarship organization rather than someone who is just scoring a 4.0 GPA.

As I have interacted with countless other scholars and achievers, I realize that we all come from diverse backgrounds and experiences, but the universal commonality between us is that we are self-starters within our communities and are actively empowering our peers to do their best.

A week later, an envelope arrived from the Gates Millennium Scholarship, a scholarship that grants 1,000 students each year a full ride to any college of their choice. As I anxiously opened the letter and read, my eyes widened. My unyielding determination was overwhelmingly met with validation and reward.

I tell this story, not to brag or say that you have to fit some mold to win scholarships. I write this to encourage teens to apply themselves inside and outside of school. Never give up, because your ideas have the potential to transform your circumstances as well as the conditions around you. After winning these scholarships, I wrote The Scholar’s Key: How You Can Unlock Your Dreams as a Teen to inspire students to apply for scholarships. It offers a series of personal stories, study tips, poems and words of encouragement to motivate students to achieve their dreams. With tuition increasing each year, it has become more than necessary for students to have the foresight to see that financial aid is essential for reducing their future debt load. You are worth being invested in. Don’t allow fear or doubt to prevent you from achieving your dreams.

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